Unchecked ‘bar­barism’ in Syria

The U.S. takes no ac­tion as the As­sad regime re­peat­edly uses poi­son gas on civil­ians.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

ON MARCH 6, the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil adopted a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the use of chlo­rine as a weapon in Syria and threat­en­ing sanc­tions or other en­force­ment ac­tion if it was used again. Ten days later, Mo­hamed Ten­nari, the med­i­cal di­rec­tor of a field hos­pi­tal in Sarmin, Syria, in the north­ern province of Idlib, heard he­li­copters over­head, quickly fol­lowed by an alert that blared through his walkie-talkie: “Bar­rel bombs” filled with poi­son gas had been dropped on the town. Mr. Ten­nari rushed to the field hos­pi­tal to find scores of peo­ple suf­fer­ing from chlo­rine in­hala­tion.

One fam­ily of six, in­clud­ing three chil­dren un­der the age of 3, were stricken when a bomb fell through a ven­ti­la­tion shaft in their home. “Their base­ment be­came a makeshift gas cham­ber,” Mr. Ten­nari told the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. The whole fam­ily died. Chlo­rine, tes­ti­fied An­nie Spar­row, a pe­di­a­tri­cian, “turns into hy­drochlo­ric acid as it is in­haled, drown­ing kids in the dis­so­lu­tion of their own lungs. I have never seen chil­dren die in a more ob­scene man­ner.”

Since March 16, there have been more than 30 chlo­rine at­tacks in Idlib province, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Amer­i­can Med­i­cal So­ci­ety. More than 540 civil­ians have suf­fered from ex­po­sure, and at least 10 have died. In ev­ery case, Syr­ian gov­ern­ment he­li­copters — no other force has such air­craft — have dropped con­tain­ers filled with chlo­rine and some­times other chem­i­cals on civil­ian ar­eas. There have been no such at­tacks by the regime against the Is­lamic State, or even against Syr­ian rebel forces— just on civil­ians be­hind the front lines.

There is no doubt that the regime of Bashar al-As­sad is re­spon­si­ble. “I am ab­so­lutely cer­tain— we are cer­tain — that the pre­pon­der­ance of those at­tacks have been car­ried out by the regime,” said Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry on Tues­day. The State Depart­ment con­firmed the at­tacks were chem­i­cal, in vi­o­la­tion of the Chem­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion that Syria rat­i­fied in 2013. They bla­tantly cross the “red line” Pres­i­dent Obama once drew-against the use of chem­i­cal weapons by Syria.

When the first at­tacks oc­curred in March, Mr. Kerry is­sued an an­gry state­ment declar­ing that “the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity can­not turn a blind eye to such bar­barism.” But the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, par­a­lyzed by Rus­sian ob­struc­tion­ism, has taken no ac­tion. And Mr. Kerry and his spokesman made it clear that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has no plans to do any­thing other than re­mon­strate with Vladimir Putin’s pow­er­less for­eign min­is­ter.

It is well within the power of the United States to put a stop to the hor­rific at­tacks. It could im­pose a no-fly zone in north­ern Syria, where Idlib province lies, or sim­ply shoot down the slow­mov­ing Syr­ian he­li­copters car­ry­ing out the at­tacks. As for­mer am­bas­sador to Syria Robert Ford tes­ti­fied to the House com­mit­tee, a fail­ure to act won’t af­fect only Syria: “The in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus against CW use forged af­ter the hor­rors of World War I is be­ing eroded with each new chem­i­cal at­tack,” he said. “This is a risk to our own sol­diers’ safety and our broader na­tional se­cu­rity.”

No mat­ter: “I don’t have any spe­cific mea­sures here that I can lay out for you” to stop the chlo­rine at­tacks, said State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby. Tell that to the fam­i­lies of the chil­dren whose lungs are be­ing burned away.

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