A history of the Syria chemical weapons 'red line'

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s government has been accused several times of using chemical weapons – even though it agreed to destroy its arsenal in a 2013 deal guaranteed by Russia.

Iakovos Hatzistavrou, AFP | The US, the UK and France hit Syria with air strikes on April 14.

Air strikes by the US, the UK and France hit a “research centre” and “production centres” for Syrian chemical weapons on the night of April 13 to 14.

The three allies cited former US president Barack Obama's 2012 "red line" as justification for the strikes, saying Assad had crossed this boundary by using chemical weapons.

In response to the red line warning, a US-Russian agreement was signed in 2013 on the destruction of the Syrian government’s arsenal of chemical weapons – but five years later, it seems that Assad has not followed his side of the bargain.

Assad’s government had admitted to possessing chemical weapons as early as July 2012. A month later, Obama said that the use of such weapons is a “red line” and that crossing it would entail “enormous consequences”. Nevertheless, after its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had been reluctant to get involved in another Middle East conflict – the red line persisted, ostensibly, as an empty threat.

But when in August 2013 the Syrian opposition accused the government of having used toxic gases during attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Moudamiyat al-Cham, near Damascus, Obama found himself in a difficult position. The attack reportedly killed nearly 1,400 people, including 426 children.

In response, a coalition of the US, the UK and France emerged to launch air strikes on Syria. But the British House of Commons refused to support the strikes. Worried about alienating Congress, Obama also backed down. On its own by this point, France had no choice but to back down too. François Hollande, then French president, was convinced that this was “a missed opportunity that could have changed the course of the war”.

Western powers opted for the path of diplomacy instead. Assad’s government was forced to join the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and a US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons capability was signed in Geneva on September 14, 2013.

In August 2014, the White House hailed the destruction of 581 tons of sarin and 19.8 tons of mustard gas under the OPCW’s supervision.

Nevertheless, in August 2016, a UN and OPCW commission known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) claimed that Syrian military helicopters had dropped chlorine on at least two places in northwestern Idlib province – in Talmenes in 2014 and Sarmine in 2015. Then in October 2016, another JIM report concluded that the Syrian military had carried out a chemical weapon attack, likely using chlorine, in Qmenas, also in Idlib, in March 2015.

But it was not until the April 4 attack on Khan Cheikhoun that the West decided to take military action. At least 83 people died in the air raid on rebel-controlled territory in Idlib province, their symptoms suggesting they were victims of a chemical attack.

US President Donald Trump reacted by ordering Tomahawk missile strikes on the Syrian military’s al-Chaayrate airbase on the night of April 6-7. Experts from the UN and OPCW confirmed that sarin gas had been used and that the Syrian government was responsible – which the latter denied.

The new 'red line'

French President Emmanuel Macron appropriated Obama’s “red line”, using the phrase at the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at Versailles and adding that any use of chemical weapons would be met with an “immediate response”.

Meanwhile Assad’s Russian ally has continued to deny that the Syrian government still has an arsenal of chemical weapons. In March 2018, Moscow even accused Syrian rebels of staging chemical attacks in an attempt to create a pretext for Western strikes.

On April 7 the Syrian White Helmets, a volunteer humanitarian organisation, rescue workers and the Syrian opposition in exile all accused Assad’s government of mounting a chemical attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta. Again, the Syrian government, along with its Russian ally, denied that any such attack had taken place, even accusing the White Helmets of "faking" the attack.

But Macron was quick to announce that France had "proof" of a chemical attack, even though an OPCW investigation was still pending. Coordinating with his American and British allies, Macron took part in strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

A declassified French intelligence report released on Saturday said there was “no possible doubt” about the Syrian government’s responsibility for the attack. The report also pointed to Russian involvement.

“There is no plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed forces,” the report said, adding that, “Russia undeniably provided military support."

The report further stated that Moscow “has also consistently provided political cover to the Syrian government on chemical weapons use, whether at the UN or the OPCW, despite the JIM’s conclusions".

This article was translated from the original in French

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