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Chemical Warfare

This week’s startling revelation by the intergovernmental Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is a damning indictment of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The Statesman Desk | New Delhi |

As the world gets increasingly riveted to the coronavirus pandemic, it would be delusory to imagine that the civil war in Syria, that erupted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, is over. Not quite; only the focus may have shifted since March 2020.

This week’s startling revelation by the intergovernmental Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is a damning indictment of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

For the first time since the war began, the international entity, which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has directly accused the “highest levels” of Syria’s military, and by implication Assad himself, of ordering illegal chemical weapons attacks.

It bears recall that such hideous attacks by the repressive regime took place in the rebel-held village of Ltamenah, in northern Syria, in March 2017. On two occasions, Syrian fighter jets dropped sarin gas, a nerve agent, making dozens ill.

In another attack, a helicopter dropped a cylinder containing chlorine through the roof of the hospital. Few countries have showcased man’s inhumanity to man as has Assad’s Syria. The OPCW has often probed illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria, but never before has it assigned blame or named the culprits.

This week’s comprehensive report is based on empirical evidence, specifically the testimony by witnesses, medical records and satellite imagery. A remarkable feature of the report must be that it has been crafted despite the refusal of the Syrian regime to cooperate and no less crucially, the ban on investigators from visiting the village.

Russia has often hindered the OPCW’s work through the repeated use of its veto in the UN Security Council and disinformation campaigns. Soon after the Ltamenah outrage, another chemical weapons assault by the regime occurred in the nearby town of Khan Sheikhun, killing 89 people.

The atrocity prompted the US to fire cruise missiles at military sites. But Assad’s withers remained unwrung, and this is borne out by the launch of yet more chemical attacks. For all the support of Vladimir Putin and the bombing from the skies, the Syrian President now has his back to wall in the presidential palace in Damascus.

The report is as detailed as it is factual. While the findings of additional investigations are awaited, the latest report is emphatic enough to warrant swift action by the UN, to bring the accused to book and exact justice for their crimes.

The possibility of that happening is slender, however. The United States has welcomed the report, taking the opportunity to criticise Russia and Iran. The EU has said it might consider additional sanctions. Predictably, the Assad regime has flatly rejected the findings, calling them “falsified and fabricated”.

The international community, preeminently the UN, has evaded its responsibility to bring the regime to its knees, most particularly after the chemical gas attacks. It is fervently to be hoped that the perpetrators will be tried in absentia, if need be. Ltamenah symbolises war crimes.