In the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Our inaction in Syria shows we have not learnt the lessons of the Holocaust [and] the lessons of not standing by.” The words chosen by Cameron and others were deliberate; the scale and systematic manner of the slaughter of Syrian civilians since 2011 is akin to some of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century. The massacre using chemical weapons in Ghouta was just one example of the brutality of which the Assad regime was capable.
According to the Washington Post on 30 August 2013, the attack left more than 1,400 men, women and children dead, and countless more wounded. It took place in real time. Media coverage raced around the world and the details were confirmed quickly by independent human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, and was verified by the UN chemical weapons report.
The attack stunned the world. The Syrian government is a signatory of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and had broken international law flagrantly. The manner in which the attack took place, and the weapons used to deliver the chemical warheads left little doubt that the Syrian government was indeed the perpetrator.
Whilst the massacre in Ghouta is the most well-known and remembered, the Syrian government has actually carried out chemical attacks on many other occasions. It is shocking that they have received very little media exposure as the world turns its attention elsewhere. The Khan Sheikhoun attack of 2017, for example, was another horrifying chemical attack which reminded the international community fleetingly of the atrocities for which the Assad regime is responsible.
There is no doubt that the culpability for these crimes goes beyond Assad himself. He may have been the perpetrator, but he was enabled to commit such heinous acts by the international community and the global superpowers, principally Russia. The government in Moscow also acted to provide Assad with legal and diplomatic protection (and continues to provide him with military support in Idlib) in the form of its veto at the UN Security Council, which it has used on a dozen occasions. Furthermore, the UN Secretary-General has admitted that the UN has failed the Syrian people. When the leader of the international organisation itself says this, it is a damning indictment of the work that has been done. Moreover, reports have revealed that the UN has handed aid meant for displaced people to the Assad regime instead.
Blame also lies with Barack Obama; his infamous “Red Lines” speech in which he detailed how the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer within the Syrian conflict ultimately meant very little; these were empty threats. The former US President was indecisive and failed to act, allowing Assad to act with impunity. It can even be argued that there was a level of collaboration between Obama and Russia on the Syrian issue, as the Iranian nuclear deal took priority. Since Donald Trump succeeded Obama, he has continued to pay lip service to the struggle against the Assad regime. Trump’s insults on social media— calling the Syrian President an “animal”, for example — are merely symbolic and do nothing to help the people of Syria who are still suffering under his rule.
The US has admitted that it was Assad who was behind the chemical attacks after a detailed assessment. The question must be asked, therefore, that if the US knew of Assad’s culpability, why has it still not acted to put an end to his ability to act with impunity? Furthermore, six years after the Ghouta chemical attack, has anyone learnt its lessons?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.