How To Respond To Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack

On April 4, chemical weapons were used to kill at least 20 children and 50 adults in the Syrian province of Idlib.

The attack involved gasses, apparently sarin and chlorine, which were dropped from a plane onto the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens and affecting hundreds more. The use of chemical weapons of any kind is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria is a part. Syria’s civil war has been going on for six years and involves the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad, who assumed power in 2000; ISIS; other jihadist terrorist groups; and various other rebel factions. Chemical weapons have been used several times in the conflict, by both government forces and ISIS.

President Assad responded to this chemical attack by denying that his government was responsible and blaming it on rebels. Russia has so far backed this claim. However, the evidence suggests that it was actually Assad’s military that carried out the attack on the area, which is currently controlled by anti-government rebels. President Donald Trump has responded by blaming his predecessor President Obama for not taking more decisive action and by hinting at a possible military response. One of Syria’s opposition leaders has blamed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the U.S. ambassador, claiming that their recent comments suggesting the U.S. would accept Assad’s continued rule are what empowered the Syrian president to carry out the attack.

So far there has been a critical piece missing from the U.S. leadership’s responses to this horrific new development. The first thing the administration should have done is to retract the attempt to block of Syrian refugees. The fact that children and other civilians are being killed in Syria by conventional weapons should be motivation enough for Americans, as human beings, to welcome any one who has the ability to escape the violence. The use of chemical weapons should be adding a new sense of urgency to the drive to get as many Syrians as possible out of harm’s way and to safety in the U.S. or wherever they can be accommodated. There is no justification for unwillingness to assist children who are under threat of being murdered by poison gas.

The second response that should be coming from our leadership is a commitment to finding an actionable strategy that will lead to an end to the violence. The sheer number of factions involved in Syria’s civil war makes de-escalation and peace efforts mind-bogglingly difficult. And it’s possible, even likely, that in this case there is no military action that the U.S. can take that can improve the situation, but that is not an excuse to do nothing or for doing the bare minimum.

Tillerson has asked Russia and Iran to “exercise their influence” over Assad to prevent another chemical attack, but that request should be just the beginning of efforts to ensure that this never happens again. Our leaders should be leveraging any and all political and diplomatic means to end this war. This may even be an instance where the current administration’s relationship with Russia could be a positive, if Trump can pressure Russia to make Assad move towards peace. That’s just one suggestion and, frankly, it has a low probability of success. What we need are dozens of suggestions, hundreds of ideas of how to end this war, and they should be coming from all sides. If ever there was a motivation to move beyond party-driven politics and towards goal-oriented politics, this should be it.

The U.S. is also a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and our leaders have mostly responded to the attack by denouncing their use. But our condemnation of chemical weapons, our moral values as a country, and our reactions of shock and horror at this attack only mean something if we’re willing to follow them up with actual attempts to help.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.