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The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta was a ‘holocaust’, but 10 years on there’s no real change

August 22, 2023 at 12:35 pm

Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) members gather to commemorate 10th anniversary of the Ghouta chemical attack, in Idlib, Syria on August 20, 2023 [İzzettin Kasım/Anadolu Agency]

As we approach this week’s 10th anniversary of the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta perpetrated by the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, it’s worth asking whether anything has changed. International inaction in the immediate aftermath of the attack – the first of its kind in the conflict at that point – prompted then UK Prime Minister David Cameron to remark that the world hasn’t learned its lesson from the Holocaust. These were powerful words, but as the past 12 years of Assad’s crackdown on the people of Syria have shown, words are all that the international community has offered.

Killing in Syria has happened on an industrial scale since 2011. Credible accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have been levelled against the Assad regime, and if it wasn’t for the cumbersome international legal framework and the UN Security Council veto, senior regime figures would be facing full legal accountability. Although US President Barack Obama spoke of a red line back in 2012, his words seemed to imply that as abhorrent as the use of chemical weapons was, conventional weapons were fine; his “red line” referred only to the former. 

Today, the situation looks a little different. The Syrian people in government-held areas are generally not facing daily indiscriminate attacks by regime forces, but everyday life is dire. The economy has essentially collapsed, and the value of the currency has long been plummeting. For ordinary Syrians who aren’t relying on remittances from abroad or have no connections within the state apparatus, life is basically unliveable. Basic human dignity is lacking when Syrians have little access to clean water and electricity, and state service providers are too incompetent and corrupt to solve local government issues. 

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Normalisation has now legitimised Assad and sent the wrong signals; it has not made the lives of the Syrian people any better, and whilst the concept was flawed as it is, its execution was just as bad. The regime was not asked to make any real concessions as a condition for normalisation, and the scourge of the Captagon trade – the drug that is powering Syria’s economy right now – continues unabated. No promises were made regarding the fate of political prisoners and detainees, and UN Resolution 2254 and the move towards a political settlement have been quietly forgotten. 

And whilst normalisation has been led by the Arab League, it is difficult to imagine that its member states will have moved forward without the tacit endorsement of the US, even if President Joe Biden won’t head in that direction publicly in the near future. Any engagement with the Assad regime is futile, though; the man and the system behind him will never negotiate in good faith, and he was interviewed recently boasting about how he has bypassed US sanctions. Assad cares about nothing and nobody apart from his own self-preservation.

Hope, however, springs eternal. After more than 12 years of conflict, the Syrian people continue to organise protests and demonstrations. In recent days, this has been seen in Al-Suwayda, with protesters chanting anti-Assad slogans similar to those used in 2011 and 2012. 

READ: The rights of the victims in Syria will not die with the statute of limitations

This dissent is uncommon in government held areas, but if there is one thing that 12 long years have shown, it is that the fear barrier has been broken. Assad’s victory is pyrrhic; the dynasty and regime can’t sustain itself forever, and the Syrian people have the right to question if it is not enough for the Assad family to have ruled Syria for over half a century. Will they have to accept the regime being in power for another fifty years?

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