Inaction over Syria has exacted a terrible price

Jonathan Freedland writes: 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 airstrike 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 Sheikhoun, as they always do. And, yes, 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 Assad that he has a free hand to kill as many people as he wants, in whatever way he chooses. [Continue reading…]

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