The alleged chemical attack in Syria has incurred a strong reaction from the international community. The United States has blamed the Syrian government and has revealed that it would react in “48 hours.” Meanwhile, an emergency meeting held in the UN saw the US and Russia trade charged insults at one another.
Russia has meanwhile noted that the accusation of a chemical attack is “fake news” and any reaction from the international community will have “repercussions.”
Russia has supported the internationally recognized government of Syria since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011: politically, with military aid, and since 30 September 2015 also through direct military involvement. The latter marked the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia entered an armed conflict outside the borders of the former Soviet Union.
The Syrian government has often been accused of conducting chemical warfare against its own citizens in rebel regions. In April 2017, news emerged of an alleged chemical attack on a rebel-held Syrian town. At least 74 people, including 11 children, were killed in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war since the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013.
The international community including the governments of United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, and Israel, as well as Human Rights Watch have attributed the attack to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is a charge that the Syrian government has vehemently denied. The attack resulted in the complete dissolution of a working relationship between US and Syrian government. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled a sudden shift in policy by the Trump administration, saying that Bashar al-Assad should have no role in a future Syria.
Russia however has long supported Syria against such accusations in the United Nations. On 9 September 2013, responding to U.S. threats of strikes against Syria in response to use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a proposal intended to avert a U.S. attack, with provisions including Syria's placing its chemical weapons under international control and their subsequent destruction. In October 2017, Russia opposed renewing the mandate of the joint UN-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) panel before it released a report on a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun.
In April 2018, it was reported that at least 42 people in Douma, Syria died due to an alleged chemical attack. The US government has blamed the official Syrian government of orchestrating this attack against its civilians. Douma is held by rebels. In early 2018, the main rebel faction in the area was Jaysh al-Islam. The attack came during a period when as negotiations for the forced exile of tens of thousands of civilians and fighters from the area faltered.
The emergency meeting at the UN
An emergency UN meeting to discuss the situation was held on Monday to discuss the development. During this meeting, the US and Russia exchanged charged rhetoric and warned one another of repercussions.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, revealed that regardless of the decision taken by the international community, Washington will respond. "We have reached the moment when the world must see justice done," Haley said, striking a sombre and threatening tone. "History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria," she added. "Either way, the United States will respond."
Speaking in Stockholm, the British prime minister, Theresa May, also weighed in noting: “We are working urgently with our allies to assess what has happened. But, we are also working with our allies on any action that is necessary.”
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, also spoke about the urgency of the matter. He said, “I urge the Security Council, in accordance with its own mandate, to maintain international peace and security and uphold international law to, for God's sake, ensure a mechanism is found to investigate this allegation and attribute responsibilities.”
Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have also vowed a "strong, joint response". The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague released a statement noting, “A fact-finding mission is in the process of gathering further information from all available sources to establish whether chemical weapons were used.”
The Russian foreign ministry insisted there was no evidence of a chemical attack, let alone Syrian government involvement, adding the Syrian rebel fighters, branded by Moscow as jihadi terrorists, may have mounted a false flag operation to try to lure a reluctant Trump administration deeper into the seven-year Syrian civil war. Both Russia and Syria have called this “fake news.” The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: “It’s necessary to examine very carefully what happened in Douma. And it goes without saying that without this information, making any deductions is wrong and dangerous.”
In addition, the Russian military said that two Israeli F-15 war planes carried out airstrikes on a Syrian air base near Homs on Sunday.
Our assessment is that there are two key takeaways from the current development. First, US and Russia seem to be on a collision course with both nations acting increasingly aggressive towards one another. They are two of the greatest military powers and the dissolution of ties between the two countries should cause concern for the international community. There is also increased animosity between Russia and western democracies and the emergency meeting is likely to increase the chasm between the two factions.
The second takeaway is the violence that is unfolding in Syria. Millions have been affected by the ongoing crisis and reports note that the region is suffering from lack of resources to adequately treat the wounded. Thousands of young children are trapped as the various faction increase their military presence and they suffer the consequences.