The Cable

Chemical Weapons Attack Ramps Up Washington Debate on Syria

While the White House blames Obama’s policies for the attack.

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An apparent chemical weapons attack killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib in Northern Syria on Tuesday. Doctors there say victims of an airstrike exhibited symptoms consistent with exposure to deadly sarin gas, a nerve agent known to have been used by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the recent past.

Initial reports of the carnage vary. War monitors and medics in Syria say the attack killed at least 50 and wounded 300. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, linked to humanitarian organizations in Syria, said at least 100 people died, and more than 400 were wounded.

If the attack is ultimately blamed on the Assad regime, it would mark Damascus’ latest escalation of the crackdown on rebel elements in the six-year old civil war, and lay bare the Trump administration’s delicate balancing act as it backs away from demands for Assad’s ouster even as he apparently gasses his own people. In 2014 and 2015, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on rebel-held areas, U.N. investigators found. Tuesday’s attack would be the largest chemical weapons attack since the Assad regime carried out a sarin gas attack in August, 2013 that killed hundreds.

Last week in Turkey, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Syrian people should decide Assad’s fate. Trump’s U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley echoed his sentiments. “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” she said on March 30.

Tillerson initially declined to condemn or comment on the apparent chemical weapons attack when asked about it Tuesday, but issued a condemnation on the attack and Assad’s “brutal, unabashed barbarism” hours later.

In the wake of Tuesday’s horrific attack, Republicans pounced. Sen. John McCain (R. -Ariz.) ripped into the Trump administration, saying that it had tacitly signaled it would turn a blind eye to Assad’s methods of repressing revolt. He also lambasted Tillerson’s comments as “another disgraceful chapter in American history.”

“I think sending the signal, the way the statements that Haley made and Tillerson said, cannot be anything but motivating to Bashar al Assad,” McCain added.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer fingered former President Barack Obama for Tuesday’s attack, calling it a “consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” The Obama administration famously declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” yet failed to act when the regime gassed its people. And while a U.S-Russian accord in 2013 removed most of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, it did not eradicate all of Assad’s stockpile.

Spicer, unlike the nominal top U.S. diplomat, was quick to condemn the attack, and singled out Assad in what appears to be the strongest reproach of Assad yet from the administration.

“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” he said, but he declined to indicate how the White House might respond to the attack, or whether it would change the implied policy shift away from forcing Assad out of office.

A senior administration official told reporters on background that the attack bore the hallmarks of a chemical weapons strike. “If it is what it looks like, then it’s clearly a war crime,” he said.

But despite Trump’s promises to overhaul and ramp up his predecessor’s war in Syria, the United States doesn’t have much leverage in the conflict. The administration official noted that the United States “doesn’t have that much influence over the actors on the ground” in Syria, unlike Turkey, Russia, or Iran, who have all taken a more active role in arming and equipping local militias.

Given the leading role that Russia and Iran have taken in Syria, especially in policing the terms of the current ceasefire, the administration official suggested, the latest apparent chemical weapons attack is their responsibility.

The planes that carried out the strike, which occurred in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, are believed to be linked with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, though the Syrian government denied any responsibility in the attack.

“We deny completely the use of any chemical or toxic material in Khan Sheikhoun town today and the army has not used nor will use in any place or time, neither in past or in future,” the Syrian army said in a statement.

The U.S. mission to the U.N. hasn’t yet released any statements on the attack, but its European allies on the Security Council weren’t as tongue-tied. Both the United Kingdom and France called for an emergency Security Council meeting to address the attack.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was “deeply disturbed” by the attack, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Dujarric added the U.N. wasn’t “currently in a position to verify” anything but it would begin looking into the reports. The U.N. has been struggling to censure Syria over its repeated human rights violations in using chemical weapons.

“The attack bears all the hallmarks of yet another deliberate campaign by the Syrian regime and their military backers to use chemical weapons,” Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, UK envoy to the U.N. said.

Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Update: This article was updated to include statements from the Secretary of State and from the U.N. Secretary General’s spokesperson.

Photo credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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