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Originally published at The Telegraph
The United Nations has confirmed that the chemical weapons dropped on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria early on Tuesday morning were delivered by aerial bombardment, which is as much as to say that the attack was conducted by Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, or, less likely, his Russian allies, since the rebellion does not have an air force.
The number of people murdered in this attack on civilians is now believed to exceed 100, and anything up to 500 people were injured, including first-responders who were not wearing protective gear.
In tandem with the symptoms—difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, dilated pupils—displayed in horrific videos and images across social media, it makes it very likely the substance used in this case was a nerve agent.
The last major incident of this kind was on 21 August 2013 when Assad carried out a massive chemical attack in the Ghuta suburbs of Damascus with the nerve agent sarin, murdering 1,400 people in a few hours.
President Barack Obama had laid down a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons a year earlier. Assad had violated that stricture a dozen times, in smaller chemical attacks and Obama had avoided the implications of his edict. But this was so flagrant that Obama had nowhere to go: it was announced that punitive airstrikes would be directed at the Assad regime.
In the event, Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin, acted quickly to capitalise on Obama’s clear reluctance to carry out military strikes, and promised to strip Assad of his chemical weapons if the strikes were called off. Relieved, Obama accepted.
The West’s allies among Syria’s rebels—who had been coordinating their response to the US strikes—were betrayed and demoralised; the extremists filled the vacuum, telling the opposition that they had known all along the West was a false friend.
Tuesday’s attack took place just as the European Union meets to discuss the way forward for Syria, including the allocation of humanitarian and reconstruction money.
It was not an accident on either occasion: it was a message intended to flaunt Assad’s immunity to the pressures of the international community, and that community’s indifference to enforcing its own standards.
It told Syria’s people that they were alone in their struggle and that there were no restraints on the dictator, thus they should give up all resistance.
This time the Assad regime has been especially brazen.
Assad and his enablers have been waging an influencing campaign to portray Assad’s rule as immovable and thus essential to those wanting to stabilise Syria. It is not about liking Assad, the argument goes; it is just reality.
The campaign has had considerable success, despite the fact that Assad cannot even control the territory in western Syria he nominally rules.
Many voices in the EU are prepared to shovel cash into Damascus for “reconstruction”—even if it is siphoned off to the Syrian military—for the sake of stopping the hemorrhage of humanity from Syria that has destabilised and radicalised European politics.
This attack is basically an effort to formalise the West’s pro-Assad policy by showing there is nothing he can do to get himself outside of their tolerance.
If the West fails to meaningfully react to this latest outrage, and if Western funds find their way to Assad’s regime in the name of stabilising Syria, then it has declared out loud what has been an implicit policy for many years.
This short-sighted “realism” will ensure the jihadists in al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) are able again to offer themselves as the only partners to the part of the Syrian population that sees its security as only possible once Assad is gone.