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Syria's Assad may be using sarin gas and the world is watching

If the reports of Assad’s latest escalation are valid, this threatens the very basis of chemical weapons control

New reports indicate that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be carrying out sarin gas attacks. If true, this represents a massive escalation in his strategy, and a devastating blow to one of the few diplomatic achievements in the Syrian conflict so far.

Assad supposedly disposed of all his chemical weapons under a deal brokered by the US and Russia. Specifically, he signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, which requires states to eliminate their chemical stockpiles completely. This was after the now infamous attack at Ghouta, in which regime forces killed about 1,400 people with sarin.

Despite that breakthrough, Assad has repeatedly carried out chemical strikes using agents such as chlorine. What’s even more alarming about these reports is that, while he has largely limited himself to small-scale attacks since acceding to the convention, he is supposedly now using sarin again. This is an extremely dangerous agent, capable of killing thousands.

As such, its use would represent a major intensification of Assad’s campaign – one that is being largely ignored by the international community.

Chlorine gas

We have been inundated with reports that the dictator has used chlorine in chemical strikes throughout Syria. Chlorine is not considered the worst chemical agent, but its effects are still horrific, especially when delivered by barrel bomb, a method long favoured by Assad’s forces.

For example, chlorine was used in March 2015 in the town of Sarmin. The strike killed an entire family, including three very young children. Dr Mohamed Tennari, who treated the victims, gave testimony to the UN Security Council, reducing its members to tears. Since then, strikes have been numerous and extensive, and Assad was even using chlorine during the efforts to enforce a “cessation of hostilities” earlier this year.

Distressing though this is, it would pale in comparison to hard confirmation that Assad is now using sarin, a vastly more dangerous and deadly agent. Last month, Israeli sources reported that Assad had used it against IS fighters to stop them seizing airbases near Damascus. This was reported as the first time Assad had used sarin since Ghouta.

He may have used it even earlier. On 22 December 2015, the regime apparently used a nerve gas of some kind in one of the same suburbs targeted at Ghouta: Moadamiya. A video was released “showing victims, some wearing breathing masks and others with tubes siphoning blood from their lungs”.

No matter when the first attack post-2013 actually was, the fact is that we now have several credible (if unproven) allegations of sarin and/or other nerve gas use in Syria, and that these attacks are getting more destructive. Pessimistic concerns that Assad would hoard some of his arsenal may have been borne out, or it may be that he has re-acquired sarin from other sources.

It’s worth noting that this is exactly what Assad did the first time around; until Ghouta, he tested the waters, carrying out bigger and bigger chemical attacks to see whether the international community would retaliate. When they didn’t, Ghouta was attacked. He may be using this tactic again, slowly building up his strikes to see if the world bites back.

If precedent is anything to go by, it probably won’t.

On the sidelines

Since the Syrian government’s stockpiles of sarin and other weapons were destroyed, the international community has done nothing to stop the subsequent chemical attacks. And its negligence has implications beyond the attacks themselves: it threatens to destroy the Chemical Weapons Convention, the best hope we have for eliminating these hideous armaments.

If Assad gets away with what he’s done, the convention will be meaningless. Its fundamental principle is supposedly that the possession and use of chemical weapons must be stopped at all costs, but the treatment of Assad reveals that, in fact, it’s being taken on a case-by-case basis.

Sticking to the convention suddenly looks like a mug’s game – and it will only be harder to enforce it from now on. How are powerful states supposed to make others toe the line and destroy their stockpiles when they’ve allowed a murderous government to gas its own citizens?

Above all, this is a disaster for the US. Often first in line to enforce international rules – albeit when it is convenient for them – Washington has now lost the legitimacy to tell others what to do when it comes to chemical weapons. That legitimacy has been steadily eroded over the years, not least by the US military’s use of white phosphorous in Fallujah, 2004, but now it’s finally crumbled.

If the reports of Assad’s latest escalation are valid, this threatens the very basis of chemical weapons control. And the international community is just sitting back and watching it collapse.

- Dr Michelle Bentley is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, UK. This article was first published at TheConversation.com/uk.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Volunteers wear protective gear during a class of how to respond to a chemical attack, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 15 September, 2013 (AFP).