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The inside story on when Assad crossed the ‘red line’

A chemical weapons attack targeted the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013. The West threatened air strikes in response, and Syria agreed to destroy its chemical arms stockpile. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the crucial days that followed.

A “red line” that must not be crossed. Those were US President Barack Obama’s words in August 2012, and repeated several times after, designed to curtail the actions of the Syrian regime. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, he said, would be a “game-changer”.

A year later, on August 21, 2013, the suburbs of Damascus were hit by a chemical attack. Anywhere from 300 to 1,400 people were killed and thousands more wounded, according to medics and opposition activists.

"Everything leads us to believe that it was the regime that committed this despicable act," said French President François Hollande six days later.

We went to Damascus just after the chemical attack. The people we met, even if they did not all say so on camera, feared Western air strikes. The population expected missiles to fall from one minute to the next, even though the Damascenes we met did not change their daily habits. They had already been experiencing war on a daily basis for some time.

But despite the Franco-American threats, no Tomahawks came to target the Syrian capital or its surroundings.

To everyone's surprise, Damascus agreed to dispose of its entire chemical arsenal, following a Russian proposal. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed to defuse the crisis.

In this documentary, I wanted to revisit this crucial episode in the Syrian conflict and try to go behind the scenes. Are we even certain that Assad's army is responsible for the chemical attack?

Despite the accusations from key Western powers, the UN High Representative for Disarmament, Angela Kane, explained that “no evidence" pointing to a culprit "would hold up in court”.

The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, and opposition figure Michel Kilo, twice imprisoned in Syria, each deliver their own version of events.

Peter Baker, a journalist at the New York Times, analyses Obama's stance and tells us about behind-the-scenes negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Finally, Republican Senator John McCain, who challenged Obama in the 2008 race for the White House, tells us that the Russians "played US Secretary of State John Kerry like a violin" in negotiations over Syria.

 

By Antoine MARIOTTI

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