Let’s never for­get As­sad’s silent killer

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - JULIE LENARZ

The lit­tle girl stares into the dis­tance while her limbs con­vulse. She is foam­ing from the mouth, des­per­ately try­ing to get air into her tiny lungs. It’s a bat­tle she prob­a­bly won’t win. The girl doesn’t know why she is dy­ing. She can’t form any words, but her con­stricted pupils speak of the agony and hor­ror she is go­ing through.

On April 7, more than 40 peo­ple were killed and hun­dreds more in­jured in a sus­pected chem­i­cal attack on the last re­main­ing op­po­si­tion strong­hold of Douma, near Damascus.

At 19.45, 500 pa­tients – most of them women and chil­dren – were taken to med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties with symp­toms of ex­po­sure to chem­i­cal agents. Videos of the af­ter­math gave an un­sani­tised view of what hap­pens when a toxic cock­tail of chlo­rine gas and sarin is dropped on civil­ians.

Chem­i­cal weapons mer­ci­lessly, in­dis­crim­i­nately fill the lungs of the in­fants, young, and old. When you watch chil­dren tak­ing their last breaths, you un­der­stand why this is a red line, whether you are the pres­i­dent of the United States or a per­son watch­ing the hor­ror un­fold on the evening news. The in­ter­na­tional community speaks of “war crimes” and “crimes against hu­man­ity”, but it is images like these which push those terms be­yond the ab­stract and turn our heads and hearts to­wards Syria’s tor­tured pop­u­la­tion. It is the pic­tures of ba­bies tak­ing their last breaths which fo­cus all our minds on how this slaugh­ter can be brought to an end.

And there’s no short­age of slaugh­ter in Syria. With the 24-hour news cy­cle throw­ing images of war at us ev­ery hour – of star­va­tion, of bro­ken bod­ies pulled from the rub­ble of bombed-out hos­pi­tals and schools, of refugees tak­ing their place in the grave­yard of the Mediter­ranean Sea – we can­not al­low our­selves to get de­sen­si­tised to the suf­fer­ing and killing of hu­man be­ings. That in it­self is a red line.

By giv­ing the chem­i­cal weapons a spe­cial rank in Syria’s blood orgy, we have to en­sure we don’t send the mes­sage that the mas­sacre of civil­ians is ac­cept­able as long as there is no poi­son gas. In fact, most Syr­i­ans die in other heinous ways. But there is some­thing es­pe­cially cruel about these weapons: they are silent killers.

Vic­tims can’t smell or see the en­emy com­ing, and then they are hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing while their corneas burn and their lips turn blue.

Chem­i­cal weapons have been out­lawed for good rea­son for al­most a cen­tury. Their use is a se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law. An ar­tillery shell the size of a suit­case, full of sarin gas, is lethal enough to wipe out an en­tire foot­ball sta­dium of civil­ians. It is the poor man’s weapon of mass de­struc­tion.

Had we failed to act, we would have set a danger­ous prece­dent. A mes­sage would have been sent not only to As­sad but to other rogue regimes that use of chem­i­cal weapons has no se­ri­ous con­se­quences. That the UN’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect

– the prin­ci­ple that if a state is no longer will­ing or able to pro­tect its own pop­u­la­tion, it be­comes the in­ter­na­tional community’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to do so – is noth­ing but a hol­low prom­ise.

The use of chem­i­cal weapons is not our red line. It is not a Western con­struct. It is the red line of the free world, and ac­tion was needed to pro­tect against the pro­lif­er­a­tion of these mon­strous killers. The Unites States, in part­ner­ship with Bri­tain and France, de­serves credit for tak­ing on this daunt­ing chal­lenge. FOL­LOW Julie Lenarz on Twit­ter @MsJulieLe­narz;

READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion

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