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The United States’ cruise missile strikes in Syria in the early hours of 7 April devastated the Shayrat airbase from which, U.S. intelligence assesses, the regime of Bashar al-Assad launched the nerve agent attack on Khan Shaykhun on 4 April. The U.S. has now released its fuller assessment of the chemical attack, which includes a record of Assad’s routine use of chemical munitions since 2013. This comes amid ongoing gridlock at the United Nations Security Council, where, during a volatile session yesterday, Russia’s deputy representative, Vladimir Safronkov, accused Britain supporting the Islamic State—before vetoing the proposed resolution to have an international investigation into this latest chemical attack, a fairly strong indication that Moscow knows its client regime in Syria would be found guilty. This is the eighth time Russia has used its veto to shield Assad, though this time it was notable that China abstained, rather than join Russia in a double-veto.
“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent Sarin, … in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017,” according to a declassified intelligence assessment from the White House released on 11 April.
The U.S. cited open-source information, the investigations of the World Health Organization and Amnesty International, and “physiological samples” that showed the “signatures” of Sarin. The White House specifically took aim at the “false narratives” and “nonsensical claims” peddled by the Assad regime and Russia, which have “sought to confuse the world community”. The document was particularly harsh with the Russians, whose “contradictory and erroneous” reports, “intended to … obfuscate on behalf of the regime,” followed a “pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents.”
The pro-Assad conspiracy theories had centred, first, on outright denial of any regime attack in the area; then the notion was that a regime airstrike on a jihadi chemical factory released the toxins in Khan Shaykhun; and, as of last night, the new line is that a Saudi missile carried the chemical weapons. One might call this progress of a kind: just as the admission of a regime air attack taking place was closer to the truth than outright denial, so the admission of an airborne chemical attack is nearer the truth than an accidental release of poison gas after a conventional attack.
The White House assessment noted that IS does possess and has indeed used chemical weapons—including those regarded as weapons of mass destruction like Sulphur mustard—but there is no record of IS being present in Khan Shaykhun, its nearest position being about fifty miles away, nor is there any indication IS possesses the weapons that carried out this attack, whether Sarin, VX, Tabun, nor any other nerve agent.
The U.S. assessed that the chemical strike, delivered by an SU-22 fixed-wing aircraft, came in response to the ongoing insurgent offensive in Hama Province, which began on 21 March, having “threatened key infrastructure”. Doubtless there was a tactical military dimension to the decision. But the fact the regime hit Khan Shaykhun, rather than Halfaya or Taybat al-Imam, points toward, as I suggested at the time, this attack as a means of terror—a frightening method of murder in its own right and, given the assumption that the international community would not react, a powerful psychological weapon in the regime’s campaign to tell a rebellious population that its cause is hopeless, no external assistance is coming, and the only options left are death or submission.
“Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack,” the report says. The U.S. recently sanctioned some of these officials after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Assad conclusively responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015.
The U.S report concludes by noting that, with the attack in Khan Shaykhun and “others before it,” the Assad regime has “violated its obligations” under both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.N. Charter. U.S. intelligence believes there have been more than 200 chemical attacks by the Assad regime since it signed the deal that spared it retributive strikes for crossing President Obama’s “red line” in 2013. “[N]o drumbeat of nonsensical claims by the regime or its allies can hide this truth,” the report concludes, and “the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons will not be permitted to continue.”