On Aug. 21, one year after President Obama’s infamous “red line” warning, Syrian President Bashar Assad launched rockets containing toxic agents at the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, causing an unprecedented number of deaths in one day. During the four-hour attack that started at 3 a.m., Assad forces launched 29 rockets bombarding several cities in rural Damascus. Some of the cities were located less than 30 minutes away from the United Nations chemical weapons inspector’s hotel.
More than 1,300 people reportedly gassed to death.
This is the largest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988. Assad thinks he will get away with this crime of monstrous proportions; he has dabbled in smaller scale chemical weapons deployments and suffered no consequences.
No consequences, even though the president of the most powerful nation in the world warned him not to cross his chemical weapons red line. No consequences, because of a flawed system that allows one nation to veto any U.N. resolution, debilitating the will and conscience of the international community. No consequences, because even though the United Nations inspectors are a mere 30-minute car ride from where Assad gassed civilians, the inspectors require his permission to travel to any site in Syria and are accompanied by handlers at every stop. The latest developments indicate that Russia and China have blocked the U.N. attempt to simply redirect the inspectors to these sites.
As pictures of children, their tiny bodies wrapped in white cloths, spread online, the Assad regime trumpeted its victory over what it called terrorists, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA.
Activists in the area report that entire families have been annihilated, making it difficult to find people to identify bodies. Medical personnel administered more than 25,000 doses of atropine to victims. Many doctors and first-responders lost their lives. The death count continues to rise.
Some have questioned the timing of this incident. Why would Assad use chemical weapons against civilians on the same day the U.N. inspector team is supposed to start its mission? The timing is perfect for Assad.
Assad is sending a message to Syrians who have dared to ask for freedom and dignity. Assad is telling them: I own you. He is telling them that the regime can act at will and that no one will protect them. This is about fear.
The timing of Assad’s attacks sends also a very clear message to the Obama administration and the international community: Your warnings do not matter, you red lines do not matter, and your inspector team doesn’t matter. Assad sends this message with the brazen audacity of a criminal who knows the system is on his side by default, and no one has stepped in to help his victims stop him.
The U.N. inspectors must visit the site of the latest chemical weapons attack. Attempting to visit sites where Assad used chemical weapons over a year and a half ago while ignoring sites where he used chemical weapons less than three days ago puts the U.N.’s credibility at stake. Assad’s reluctance to allow this proves his guilt.
We at the Syrian Coalition (the official opposition recognized by 114 countries), along with the Supreme Military Council, are ready to assist U.N. inspectors in gaining safe and unhindered access to these areas, as well as all other areas where Assad used chemical weapons in the past.
The U.N. must also address the mechanisms needed to prevent a similar attack and to protect civilians from all of Assad’s violent methods. Syria’s chemical weapons are not secure while the Assad regime remains. Its command structure is fractured and it no longer fears the fallout of using these weapons. Yesterday it used them on sleeping children. Tomorrow its Hezbollah and Iranian allies could decide to use them on other perceived enemies.
For the past two years, Syrians have placed their trust in international bodies. Assad wants to show them that this trust is misplaced. The U.N., and the nations that support the rights of the Syrian people, must demonstrate that a dictator cannot kill his people with impunity. To allow a crime with no consequence is of grave danger not only to victims of this crime but also to humanity as a whole. This practice not only emboldens the criminal, it sets a terrifying precedent for all criminals and tyrants.
Assad has just made his boldest move yet in his violent crackdown against the Syrian uprising. The tyrants of the world, along with the millions of Syrians who have lost their homes, their jobs and their loved ones, are now watching carefully. The international community and the United States of America must respond with a move of equal boldness.
Saleh is the director of the Syrian Coalition’s media office. He is a member of the Syrian Coalition, and a founding member of the Syrian National Coalition. Saleh was one of the original 22 members who met to establish the Syrian National Council in 2011, and currently serves on the SNC’s executive office. He also heads the political office of the Dier Ezzor Revolutionary Council and is a member of The Syrian National Current’s political office.