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7 years after the chemical attack in Syria, Assad has not been held to account

Syrians gather near a vehicle of the United Nations (UN) arms experts as they inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack last week on 28 August 2013 in the Eastern Ghouta area on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus. [MOHAMED ABDULLAH/AFP via Getty Images]
Syrians gather near a vehicle of the United Nations (UN) arms experts as they inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack last week on 28 August 2013 in the Eastern Ghouta area on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus. [MOHAMED ABDULLAH/AFP via Getty Images]

In the aftermath of the chemical attack in the Damascus province of Ghouta seven years ago, David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister remarked: "Our inaction in Syria shows we have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust" and "the lessons of not standing by". The words he and others used were deliberate; the scale and systematic manner of the slaughter of Syrian civilians is akin to some of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century. The chemical massacre that took place on 21 August 2013 was only one aspect of the brutality that the Assad regime was capable of; a regime that is infamous for harbouring a Nazi war criminal for decades and had him serve as an adviser to the late President, Hafez Al-Assad.

The massacre which left more than 1,300 dead and countless more wounded, took place in real time. Its coverage reached around the world and it was quickly confirmed by independent human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and was verified by the United Nations chemical weapons report.

The attack stunned the world. The Syrian government is a signatory to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and had flagrantly broken international law in this instance. The manner in which the attack took place, and the weapons used to deliver the chemical agents left no doubt that the Syrian government was indeed the perpetrator of the massacre.

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And whilst the massacre in Ghouta is the one that is most well-known and remembered, the Syrian government has perpetrated chemical attacks on many other occasions. It is shocking that they too have received very little media exposure as the world turns its attentions away from Syria. The Khan Sheikhoun attack of 2017 was another horrifying chemical attack which fleetingly reminded the international community of the atrocities of the Assad regime.

There is no doubt that the culpability for these crimes goes beyond Al-Assad himself. Whilst he was the perpetrator, he was enabled to commit this heinous act by the international community and the superpowers within it; principally Russia. Russia also acted to provide Al-Assad with legal and diplomatic protection (as well as continuing to provide him with military support in Idlib) in the form of its UN Security Council veto which it used on 14 occasions. Furthermore, the UN secretary-general has admitted that the UN – and its inaction – has failed the Syrian people. When the leader of the organisation itself says this, it is a damning indictment of the work that has been done. Moreover, reports have revealed that the UN has facilitated aid meant to reach displaced people, to the Al-Assad regime instead.

In this spirit, it is worrying to hear recent reports linking states with the re-legitimisation of the Assad regime. Whilst it is no surprise that the Gulf monarchies, who are infamously known for sponsoring the counter-revolutionary movements in the post-Arab Spring era are quietly re-establishing ties with Al-Assad, recent developments indicating Italy and Greece's rapprochement strike an ominous tone. The EU and its member states formally cut all diplomatic ties with the Syrian government back in 2012, but as the Syrian issue recedes from people's memories, states are seemingly tempted to re-establish diplomatic relations again. Lest we forget, a legal challenge was filed to refer this regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC) last year. And, whilst this is set to take time, legal accountability for the Assad regime offers a little light at the end of a very long tunnel. Re-legitimisation of Al-Assad must be resisted.

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There is no doubt that blame lies with Obama too; the infamous "Red Lines" speech in which he detailed how the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer within the Syrian conflict ultimately did little. His threats were empty. Obama was indecisive and failed to act and allowed Al-Assad to continue unabated 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. As Trump ascended to the presidency, he has continued his lip service against the Assad regime but his insults in calling him "an animal" are merely symbolic and do nothing to help the people of Syria who are still suffering under his rule. Trump's well documented friendly relations with Putin, make any hope that genuine pressure on Russia over Al-Assad will amount to little. The arrival of Joe Biden, Obama's former vice president, is not necessarily encouraging either as he was unclear when asked if he's be willing to re-open diplomatic channels with Al-Assad if elected president.

The US itself has admitted that it was Al-Assad who was behind the chemical attacks after a detailed assessment. With that being said, the question must be asked; the US knew of Al-Assad's culpability, so why has it still not acted to stop his impunity? When will never again truly mean never again?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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