Helicopters from Bashar Al-Assad’s regime attacked the Syrian village of Sarmin in Idlib province last week, dropping barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas that killed at least six people and wounded dozens more, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and pro-opposition Local Coordination Committees reported.
“There is extreme fear and panic among the people of Sarmin, combined with serious population displacement,” said Abdullah Jada’an, an activist from Idlib. “They are waiting for the international community to penalise the Syrian regime.”
Multiple sources have also claimed that residents of the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Al-Qadam were targeted on Tuesday overnight by a gas attack; the number of victims is not yet known.
These attacks came two weeks after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria; it stressed that those who use such weapons will be held accountable. The resolution, however, did not specify the perpetrators of the known chemical attacks, but promised to take action if it such attacks occur again.
Footage from the attack on Sarmin revived memories of the faces of those who were targeted in the August 2013 chemical attack on East Ghouta, near Damascus; civilians, including children, were unable to breathe and were choking to death. The world powers failed to hold the regime accountable for the attack in 2013. They did, however, strip the Assad regime of its chemical arsenal thanks to a US-Russian agreement under Article VIII of the Chemical Weapons Convention to prevent such crimes.
“I think the international community is completely ignoring what is going on in Syria,” said Samir Nashar, a Syrian opposition figure and member of the Syrian National Coalition. “Bashar Al-Assad derives his strength from [the weakness of] the international community. As such, he is using internationally prohibited weapons repeatedly.”
After obtaining reports confirming the use of chemical weapons, the UN drafted four resolutions to intervene militarily in Syria, but all four were blocked by Russia’s veto which, along with China’s, protected Assad’s grip on power in Syria. The UN failure to intervene has destroyed the hopes of many Syrians that the international community will really hold Assad and his regime accountable.
The US has had a strained relationship with Syria since 2003, when it threatened sanctions due to Assad’s development of chemical weapons; Damascus denied the American allegations. Prior to the regime’s first attack using chemical weapons, US President Barack Obama warned that a chemical weapon attack would make the US minded to intervene in Syria.
In mid-2013, Assad’s forces used Sarin gas in an area near Damascus. Obama was close to declaring a war against the Syrian regime before changing his stance after brokering a deal with Russia, Assad’s main ally.
In June 2014, a joint mission of the UN and the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons materials was complete. Chlorine gas was not included in the disarmament agreement, however, though it is considered to be a chemical weapon internationally. Damascus did not list chlorine on the declaration of its chemical weapons arsenal.
In response, the Syrian opposition issued a statement condemning the use of chlorine gas as part of the attack on Sarmin, calling on the UN Security Council to investigate the incident. “We call on the Security Council to send a fact-finding mission to the scene as quickly as possible and investigate the regime’s use of chlorine gas. Assad knows that he can get away with murder… Unless the UN Security Council takes enforceable measures to ensure accountability,” added opposition spokesman Salem Al-Meslet in a separate statement.
The OPCW concluded its fact-finding mission to Syria recently and announced that chlorine gas was used “systematically and repeatedly” in northern Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks made it clear that he believes that the whole world must condemn the attack and indicated the need for an investigation. “The international community cannot turn a blind eye to such barbarism,” said Kerry. “The Assad regime continues to flout international standards and norms.”
According to Samir Nashar, the current priority for American foreign policy, which he thinks dictates international policy, is its discussions with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear capability. “If an agreement [with Iran] is signed by the beginning of the [next] month, I believe that major shifts will happen,” he concluded.
Abdulrahman Al-Masri is a freelance journalist based in Canada. His work covers politics and news in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. He analyses international politics and the crises in the region, bringing attention to the way that foreign interests influence conflicts. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.