While You Weren't Looking

Will Syria Be Held to Account for Chemical Attacks?

A landmark investigation blames Bashar al-Assad’s government for war crimes against civilians.

Syrian state media reported on April 17, 2018, that investigators from the world's chemical watchdog OPCW had entered Douma, a town outside Damascus where an alleged gas attack 10 days earlier left dozens dead.
Syrian state media reported on April 17, 2018, that investigators from the world's chemical watchdog OPCW had entered Douma, a town outside Damascus where an alleged gas attack 10 days earlier left dozens dead. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s new pop-up newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner.

Beyond the pandemic, here’s what we’re watching this week: The global chemical weapons watchdog blames Syria’s government for attacks on civilians, Chad’s military claims to have killed over 1,000 Boko Haram fighters, and why Nicaragua’s president hasn’t appeared in public for a month.

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Syrian Government Blamed for Chemical Weapons Attacks 

A landmark investigation by the U.N.-aligned Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has for the first time blamed the Syrian government for chemical attacks on civilians in March 2017. A report issued Wednesday by the chemical weapons watchdog concluded that the Syrian Air Force dropped sarin and chlorine on the central Syrian town of Ltamenah, which left 100 people sick. At the time, the town served as a logistics hub for opposition groups fighting president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The OPCW had previously confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but it had stopped short of naming those responsible. The use of chlorine and sarin are both considered to be war crimes. In 2018, the organization established a team to identify the perpetrators of the attacks, analyzing lab reports, satellite imagery, medical records, videos, and witness interviews. It concluded that the attacks could have only been carried out with orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Armed Forces.

Hopes for accountability. Chemical weapons have been used dozens of times during the Syrian civil war, but Wednesday’s report focused on just three attacks in Ltamenah. Days afterward, more than 80 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack in neighboring Khan Sheikhoun, which Western leaders blamed on the Syrian government. The OPCW’s report raised hopes that Assad could be held to account.

“Now that the report has explicitly pointed to the Syrian government as the perpetrator of these attacks, strong cooperation between states is necessary to ensure that these atrocities are not met with impunity,” Hadi al-Khatib, the founder and director of Syrian Archive, an initiative that collects evidence of atrocities committed in Syria, told the Guardian. Previous war crimes tribunals have shown that holding perpetrators to account can take years of painstaking work. The arc of the moral universe is long, but Wednesday’s report is seen as a significant step in bending it toward justice.

Russia escapes blame. A separate U.N. inquiry released on Monday found the Syrian government and its allies responsible for attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian sites in 2019, but it stopped short of implicating Assad’s key military backer: Russia. An investigation published last year by the New York Times found evidence that Moscow was behind one of the attacks in the U.N. inquiry, which examined just seven of the hundreds of airstrikes carried out on civilian targets during the war.

The U.N. probe was criticized from the outset as being too narrow in scope, and the New York Times has reported that Russia sought to pressure U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to limit the investigation and withhold its findings.

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What We’re Following

Clashes in Chad. Chad’s army has killed more than 1,000 fighters from the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram in an operation in the Lake Chad region, a military spokesperson said on Thursday. Fifty-two Chadian troops were killed in the offensive. The operation was launched on March 31 after more than 90 Chadian soldiers were killed by Boko Haram last month—the group’s deadliest-ever attack. Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno declared two parts of the Lake Chad region war zones in the wake of the assault, giving local and military officials more power to respond to the militant group.

Bye-bye, Bernie. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that he would end his presidential campaign on Wednesday, making Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee to face off against Donald Trump in the November election. Sanders may be gone, but his influence remains: His progressive views on foreign policy, military spending, and health care are entering the Democratic Party’s mainstream, as FP’s Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Colum Lynch report.

Cease-fire in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen called for a two-week cease-fire on Wednesday in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It is the first time since 2016 that Riyadh has agreed to a cessation in hostilities in the conflict, which has raged for over five years. Even if the move is only temporary, it could reinvigorate U.N. efforts to broker a political solution to the war, which has killed over 100,000 people, Elana DeLozier writes in FP.

Homicide rate drops in Latin America. Latin American countries plagued by gang violence have seen a dramatic drop in murder rates as countries impose strict quarantine measures in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus. In Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras, homicide rates fell by half last month, Axios reports. El Salvador, which has the world’s highest per capita homicide rate, went 48 hours without a murder in March.

But the news isn’t all good. Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told CBS news that she feared a spike in domestic and gender-based violence as people are encouraged to stay at home.


Keep an Eye On

Nicaragua’s missing president. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has not been seen in public for nearly a month. He has failed to show up for rallies, government events, and even the funeral of a close ally, the New York Times reports. His sudden disappearance has prompted speculation that he may be practicing extreme social distancing while his government takes a cavalier approach to the pandemic. Nicaragua’s schools, businesses, and borders remain open.

Iraq’s leadership vacuum. Iraqi President Barham Salih has nominated the country’s intelligence chief, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as the new prime minister-designate—the third person to step into the role this year. Securing the necessary parliamentary support has proved to be an uphill task for previous nominees. The first, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, failed to win the necessary support, and the second, Adnan al-Zurfi, was unable to convince Shiite members of parliament to back him.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November 2019 amid anti-government protests, but his cabinet has stayed on in a caretaker capacity as the struggle to find a replacement continues.


Foreign Policy Recommends

When the U.S. missionary Renee Bach was accused of operating an unlicensed medical facility in Uganda where 105 children died, it fueled debate about underqualified “white saviors” taking a free hand with vulnerable populations in the global South. In “A Missionary on Trial,” the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy takes a deep dive into this cautionary tale, asking: Who is to blame for the dozens of deaths at Bach’s facility?


Odds and Ends

Need some space. Three astronauts took off for the International Space Station on Thursday after spending a month in prelaunch quarantine. Family members were not allowed at the launch site in Kazakhstan, and the Orthodox priest sent to bless the crew stood several feet away. “No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted.

Kept in the dark. In the Tajik city of Khujand, a giant banner of the country’s authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon that hangs from the side of an apartment building has blocked off residents’ access to light and fresh air for over a year. Local authorities are too fearful of Rahmon to address the situation, RFE/RL reports.

In the time of coronavirus. In the privacy of the global lockdown, a pair of pandas at a Hong Kong theme park have mated for the first time in over 10 years. The endangered species have notoriously low libidos. It will be a few months before an ultrasound scan can reveal whether their quarantine efforts have paid off.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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