Partners pledge day of reckoning for chemical attacks in Syria

A century ago, combatants unleashed mustard and other poisonous gases that killed tens of thousands on European battlefields during World War I. The use of these agents so repulsed the world that the 1925 Geneva Convention was adopted outlawing the use of chemical weapons.

But the practice re-emerged, notably in the 1980s when Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran and then against its Kurdish minority. Now, the conflict in Syria has forced the civilized world to confront this scourge again.

A line of uniformed soldiers, each with an arm on the next man's shoulder, some with eyes bandaged (© IWM)
A line of British troops blinded by German army gas in the Battle of Estaires near Béthune, France, in April 1918. (© IWM)

The regime of Bashar al-Assad was widely blamed for the sarin attack that killed hundreds of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, an area of opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, in August 2013. The U.S. and Russia brokered a deal under which Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons.

But that was not the end.

After a sarin attack killed scores in April 2017, the United States struck a Syrian air base with missiles. In the past month, there have been several suspected chlorine attacks against the cities of Saraqeb in Idlib province and Douma in Eastern Ghouta.

Children standing in a line holding photos (© Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)
Children honor friends killed in a suspected chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun, Syria, in July 2017. (© Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia, the regime’s ally, has repeatedly used its United Nations Security Council veto to block renewal of international inspectors’ mandate to identify those parties responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria.

After a January chlorine attack on Eastern Ghouta, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria.”

As they did at Geneva decades ago and again in 1993 with the Chemical Weapons Convention, civilized nations are standing together to forswear use of these weapons of mass destruction and hold accountable those who flout these international agreements.

More than 20 countries and international organizations have joined the French-led International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons.

“This initiative puts those who ordered and carried out chemical weapons attacks on notice. You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity and your victims will see justice done,” Tillerson said at the partnership launch in Paris on January 23.

Rex Tillerson speaking (© Thibault Camus/AP Images)
Tillerson, at the launch of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, called “on the community of responsible and civilized nations to put the use of chemical weapons to an end” in Syria and worldwide. (© Thibault Camus/AP Images)

The countries in the partnership signed a declaration reiterating that “all uses of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances are unacceptable” and that such use “contravenes international standards and norms.”

They agreed to collect and share information so those responsible for chemical attacks may be brought to justice and to sanction individuals, groups and governments that carry them out.

Tillerson, in a recent speech at Stanford University in California, said the Syrian people have endured almost 50 years of suffering under the dictatorships of Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad. Up to half a million Syrians have perished, more than 5.4 million are refugees, and 6.1 million have been internally displaced since the fighting began in 2011, he said.

After a week of intense bombardments and the reported deaths of hundreds of civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta, the United Nations Security Council on February 24 unanimously called for an immediate, nationwide 30-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid into the city and to evacuate the wounded. The truce would not apply to terrorist groups, including Islamic State, the Nusra Front or al-Qaida.