Let’s not speak of our horror. Let’s not hold emergency meetings or pass urgent resolutions expressing our outrage at the poisoning of Syrian children and adults in Idlib province through a nerve agent, probably sarin gas. Let’s have no declarations worded in the “strongest possible terms”. Let’s utter no more cliches about acts that “cannot be ignored”. Let’s not even condemn these attacks any more — because our condemnations ring so hollow.
We know what the use of this kind of chemical weapon does to people. If you have a strong enough stomach, and you make yourself look at the photos, you can see the bodies of dead children, arranged like sardines, under a threadbare quilt. You can read the accounts of how they died: “writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth,” according to the New York Times, killed by a substance so toxic that “some rescue workers grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead”. We know that the poison spread after warplanes dropped bombs — and that the warplanes came again a few hours later, hitting a small clinic ministering to the victims. The injured and the dying were being treated there because the area’s larger hospital had been hit by an air strike two days earlier.
And we almost certainly know who did it. Every sign points to the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Sure, Damascus blamed the rebels who hold the town of Khan Shaikhoun, as they always do. And, yes, Al Assad’s enablers and accomplices in Moscow offered a variation on that theme, saying that Syrian planes had struck a rebel stockpile of nerve agents, accidentally releasing them into the atmosphere.
We know how seriously to take such pronouncements from the regime of Vladimir Putin. More credible is the word of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who once led the British army regiment responsible for dealing with chemical weapons and is now a director of Doctors Under Fire. He told the BBC that the Moscow explanation was “fanciful” and “unsustainable”. As he explained, “if you blow up sarin, you destroy it”.
So we know all this, and we also know that for six long, bloody years atrocities have continued in Syria — and nothing happens. Indeed, impunity may not just be the consequence of this latest crime, but also its cause. In recent days, the Trump administration has all but told Al Assad that he has a free hand to kill as many people as he wants, in whatever way he chooses.
Just this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the “longer-term status of President [Al] Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; in other words, you won’t have any trouble from us. Last week, President Donald Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, said “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting [Al] Assad out”.
And, easy though it is easy to point the finger at Trump, the indulgence of Al Assad has been an international enterprise. In February, the UN Security Council considered imposing sanctions over the use of chemical weapons. Russia vetoed it, of course: it would never want to stay the hand of its murderous chum. But China vetoed it too. Remember, this was not a resolution calling for military action against Al Assad. All it sought to do was impose sanctions. But even that was too much.
The world made its decision on Syria — where more than 400,000 have been killed and millions upon millions have been turned into refugees — long ago. It concluded that it does not have the means or, crucially, the will to stop the agony. Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly of the Obama administration, suggests a single strike that would crater, say, a runway used by Al Assad’s warplanes — not an invasion, not a full-scale military operation, but some way of punishing Syria for what it has done.
But you know that will be deemed too much. That it would be vetoed at the Security Council and condemned as a violation of international law — even though, of course, Al Assad has himself broken international law, indeed broken a set of precious, century-old conventions and agreements that ban chemical weapons.
A world without such a prohibition, a world where the use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, where it becomes routine, is a terrifying prospect. And yet, surely, Al Assad’s impunity is, at this very moment, being noted and filed away by the world’s most brutal regimes: the precedent is being set. This is what you can get away with.
For more than a decade, we have rightly weighed the grave consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, counting the toll in human suffering. We are all too aware of the costs of action. But the dead of Khan Shaikhoun force us to make another calculation. They force us to see that inaction too can exact a terrible price.
— Guardian News and Media Limited
Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He has also published eight books including six best-selling thrillers, the latest being The 3rd Woman