Global attention in early April was focused on the chemical weapon attacks in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The use of these weapons captures the public’s imagination and horror more so than other facets of the conflict. It also, predictably, triggers international action. So why were these weapons used?
If we start from the assumption that it was a Regime or Regime-allied force who conducted the attack, not a conspiracy or imagined construction by the Syrian Opposition. The first important point to note is that lost in the fury from Western capitals and across social media following the attack was the fact that it led to the surrender of territory to the Regime. In other words, the chemical weapons attack helped the Regime to win a battle.
Whilst chemical weapons have been responsible for a fraction of the deaths in Syria over the last seven years, a toll that runs into the hundreds of thousands but is very difficult to calculate accurately, their use, despite its illegality, can be both practical and strategic.
Practically the use of heavier than air gases such as chlorine allows attackers to reach those hiding in basements from the more conventional assaults from the ground and from the air. Several reports from Eastern Ghouta speak of a hugely demoralised population, battered by shelling and airstrikes that had created a death toll of nearly 2,000 in the space of a few weeks. For people’s final places of safety to be exposed to chemical attacks was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Then there is the fear factor associated with chemical weapons. Unlike blasts from conventional weapons that whilst frightening enough, have clear radius of impact. Toxic gas that hangs in the air or clings to people’s skin and clothes can create even more heightened fear. The manner of the injuries and fatalities from chemical weapons is particularly gruesome. Nerve agents that block a bodies internal workings, gas that prevents breathing and leads to frothing mouths and spasms are both hugely painful and distressing for those trying to help.
When chemical weapons were used against the town of Khan Shaykhun in April of last year, the residents who survived fled to the north. The weapons can not only degrade the capacity of their enemies physically but can also force them to abandon areas without having to force an attacker to commit ground forces into the fight. Also, unlike conventional weapons the chemical attacks don’t destroy buildings and infrastructure, allowing captured areas to be immediately utilised or better recovered.
The awfulness of the pain and fear the weapons cause for civilians is of course one of the triggers for their illegality and the development of mechanisms of global prohibition against them. In addition to people’s knowledge of how people suffer from the use of chemical al weapons there is also the fact that images of those who’ve been affected can and are shared in a manner that other attacks are unable to do. Blast injuries result in terrible bloody scenes of lost limbs and human devastation - hard to see and share. Those killed by chemical weapons can often seem untouched showing no visible sign of the weapon that killed them from within.
Whilst many of the world’s powers are unsure what to do about a conflict like Syria, reluctant to intervene especially now the Russians are so deeply embedded, the Regime is fighting what it sees as an existential battle for its existence and despite no longer looking in danger of falling is using every weapon in its arsenal.
This then poses the question as to whether the Regime will use chemical weapons again in order to secure further territory from the opposition in the south of the country of in Idlib, the north-western bastion of rebel control where an estimated two million civilians are thought to live.
The US-led intervention in response to Eastern Ghouta was of a higher scale than the cruise missiles attacks of the year before in response to Khan Shaykhun but it doesn’t seem to have radical degraded or affected the Regime’s military capacity.
So, despite attempts to reimpose a ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons, the lack of cost to the Regime for their use in terms of further military sanction or wider accountability, could mean the advantage of using them outweighs the risk.
President Trump’s description of ‘mission accomplished’ following the strike and his Defence Secretary stating that it was a ‘one off’ further reduce fears from the Regime of more punitive action. Balancing these together you can see how it would be prudent for residents of Idlib to start stocking up on gas masks and medicines to help treat those affected by chemical attacks. Syria’s toxic legacy appears no way finished.