Douma: The Latest Face of Chemical Warfare in Syria

BY AYESHA ISHTIAQ

Pro Syrian regime forces are seen advancing towards the town of Douma on April 7. The Russian defence ministry said the Syrian regime flag was flying on Thursday in the town of Douma. (AFP)

In recent years, ‘chemical attacks’ and ‘Syria’ have become almost synonymous in world affairs at an alarming rate. There is a plethora of opinions between varying world actors regarding these events surrounding the chemical attacks, that first began in 2012 and have only gained momentum since. Earlier in the same year, the Syrian regime publicly acknowledged possessing vast arsenal of chemical weapons and under the assessment of the United States intelligence, has been declared capable to utilize these weapons through ballistic missiles, aerial bombing and rockets. In 2012, the world witnessed attacks in many Syrian cities including the neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus, two of the largest and most populous cities of Syria, thus resulting in huge civilian casualties. In 2013, under much pressure, the Syrian government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention following the attacks in Ghouta as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) demanded the government destroy all its existing chemical weapons. Under the accord, the Syrian government was to provide a list of all existing chemical arsenals, including the quantities, types and location. The repercussions of failure of compliance to the agreement on Assad’s part were to include reporting to the UNSC and the authorization of disciplinary action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. However, since the signing of the accords, there has been mounting evidence of the regime continuing on with the production of chemical weapons in facilities such as the Barzeh research center and the Him Shinshar facility with little to no action regarding this blatant ignoring of the convention. This disregard continued besides some futile interventions on United States part last year when President Trump ordered an airstrike in Syria – a pointless action yielding no results besides showcasing the White House’s fragmented foreign policy. Following that unavailing intervention, on April 13, 2018 US aligned with UK and France forming a joint attack group pointed towards chemical weapon sites within Syria.The three powers had expressed deep concern over Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons and launched the joint attack on the facilities in Syria.  Since the beginning of 2018, the city of Douma has seen upto four chemical attacks, the most recent being on April 7 resulting in countless deaths and terror in the country once again as even breathing became a deathblow.

The war has in itself shadows of the last century’s worst atrocities. Various international actors have been involved in discussing this issue in the UNSC but all are mostly concerned with their personal economic and military interests in the region than humanitarian causes. It is also worth noting that the long power struggle between Russia and the United States still remains at large in impacting policies within the Middle East. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria today, the two powers have been jockeying for influence covertly over the span of many decades. The hope of having any end to this struggle is even less expected given to the rather constantly changing advising staff of the president of the United States. The appointment of John Bolton as the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), replacing H.R. McMaster, has impacted the foreign policy, given to his popularly hawkish viewpoints especially concerning Syria and the wider Middle East. These conflicting goals have distracted the country from issues such as the Syrian regime blatantly ignoring the clauses of the Chemical Convention and also failing to acknowledge the use of chemical weapons despite mounting evidence against them. The Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has also been mandated with protecting the Chemical Weapons Convention of prohibiting development, production stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction.”  However the OPCW has also shown no signs of a properly addressing of these reports of chemical weapons use and has failed to come forth with any appropriate penalty. Despite sanctions by the United States and the European Union, there has been no full accountability of these violations.

The situation is further complicated through Russia’s heavy involvement in backing the Assad regime against the rebels within the country. For Russia, a foothold within Syria is crucial as this boosts Putin’s popularity at home both militarily and economically. Through having power within Syria, the Kremlin concern of suppressing any Islamist factions rebelling in the Chechnya region can also be addressed. To preserve its hold in the Middle East, Russia has not been behind in continuing to use its veto powers in the UNSC to prevent any accountability of the Assad regime regarding its violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention. All of these conflicting goals of the international system and the failure hindering the Assad regime’s growing obsession with chemical weapons is continuing to reach horrible humanitarian consequences as the death pile of civilians continues to grow in Syria – with 10,204 civilians dead only in the year 2017.

The United States internal turmoil has also begun to show on it’s foreign policy. The president’s excessive tweets have only made it harder to fully understand where the country stands on the Syrian issue. On one hand the president has declared his launch of an ‘America First’ ideology, while on the other he cannot seem to completely let go of interfering in the Middle East. This was shown in the White House’s order of the missile strike in 2017 in response to chemical attacks by the Syrian regime. Seeing no results in this thoughtless decision, the president changed his stance and began to talk about withdrawing American troops out of Syria while suspending also US aid in the region. While a US withdrawal from the Middle East may be something the foes of the United State would cheer on, advocates and advisors within the White House have managed to talk him out of any immediate withdrawal as it could have far reaching effects on the United States power much outside of Syria.These decisions have larger impacts in the international system that seem to have been disregarded by the POTUS as he continues to fluctuate between two extreme thought processes, without finding a middle ground. American regional allies- Saudi Arabia, Israel and factions within Syria are heavily opposed to the idea of American troops withdrawing as they believe that American presence is necessary to keep Russian and Iranian influence at bay.

As the attack in Douma surfaced, using Twitter as a platform of giving political statements, the president also blamed Vladimir Putin for his involvement with the Assad regime, calling him out regarding the chemical attacks in Douma. Such a statement, tweeted in an offhand way, holds rather high implication in the international balance. Not only does this affect the Syrian regime adversely, but it puts the US in direct line of fighting against Russia once again in stark similarities with the Afghanistan War of 2001. The Middle East is not ready to face another confrontation between the two powers, especially as it scrambles for stability within its own borders. These tweets have made it hard to fully grasp the exact stance of US foreign policies. However, staying true to his recent tweets regarding a missile strike on the chemical weapon sites, the US, UK and France led coalition came through by responding to the Douma attacks. A briefing from Pentagon has confirmed three sites being hit; two within Damascus and one in Homs. President Trump alongside the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May declared that such attacks will not go unchallenged. Donald Trump has called these joint attacksprecision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”

The situation within Syria is rapidly changing, with varying responses from international actors against regional authorities. There is no doubt that there must be accountability for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the joint attacks on the plants by the UK, the U.S. and France on April 13, 2018 have to an extent proved that these powers have not put a blind eye towards the attacks and is ready to retaliate against such actions. However, such interference does not go without response and the world once again holds its breath for the opposing side to use their hand on the game of the Middle Eastern policies.

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