Assad and Chemical Weapons

Philosophy, Politics

Drew Pavlou

President Donald Trump may be a lumbering buffoon, but his administration has been right on at least one thing. Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Assad’s forces in April 2018 in order to degrade Syria’s facilities for the production of chemical weapons and deter their future use was morally justified and a necessary act on the part of the international community.

We know with certainty that Assad was behind the devastating chemical attack on Douma in 2018 that left dozens of Syrian civilians dead. Assad had the motive to use such weapons in Douma and his regime has used them in the past. Having vowed to take the entirety of Syria back from rebels by force, the use of chemical weaponry in Douma was a desperate attempt to salvage a victory for Assadist forces from the jaws of defeat. Assadist forces had taken heavy losses in brutal street fighting against the hardened, entrenched Sunni Islamist rebel organisation Jabhat Ansar al-Islam. In the face of such intense fighting, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam attempted to negotiate a deal with Russians under which they would stay in the city, which Russia, Assad’s main foreign backer, agreed to. In order to avoid agreeing to such a deal which would have represented a crushing defeat in his quest to take the entire country back by force, Assad directed his helicopters to pummel the area with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Jabhat Ansar al-Islam ultimately surrendered and withdrew, handing Assad the military victory he craved. It was not the first time Assad had effectively used chemical weapons in service of military gains. According to the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, since Assad’s use of Sarin in Khan al-Assal in 2013 which resulted in the death of some 1300 civilians, there have been dozens of chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. This circumstantial evidence pointing to Assad’s guilt is compounded by a French technical analysis of the attacks that shows Assad’s responsibility for them.

French intelligence services analysed the testimonies, photos and videos that spontaneously appeared on specialized websites, in the press and on social media in the hours and days following the attack and concluded with a high degree of certainty that chemical weapons known to be stockpiled by the Syrian government were behind the mass casualties that occurred in Douma. Based on footage of the crime scene which showed that a gas cannister had pierced the roof of the civilian complex in which dozens were killed, French intelligence services concluded that the chemical attack was conducted via air, something that points to Assad’s culpability given that there were a number of Syrian government air force operations in the area on the day of the attack. The rebels have no air force and a de-confliction agreement with Western nations allows only Syrian and Russian government planes to operate in the Douma area. If the attack was delivered via air, it must have been Assad.

Knowing Assad’s guilt, to stand by and do nothing would be an act of complicity on the part of the West. Western military intervention in the Middle East has often been disastrous and has often materially worsened the lives of civilians in affected countries (See: Iraq) and for this reason a policy of regime change in Syria would be misguided and wrong. However, America’s limited military strikes on Assad’s chemical warfare research and production facilities are morally justifiable. Assad’s chemical attacks have murdered thousands of Syrian civilians in brutal, horrifying fashion. The graphic photos from Douma of children struggling to breathe, their lungs burning with chlorine gas, are heart wrenching and soul destroying. These are human beings. We cannot abandon them to their fate just because they live on the other side of the world. One day I fear my children will ask: How did your generation stand by and do nothing? In 1994, the West stood by and did nothing as 1 million Tutsi civilians were murdered in the horrific Rwandan genocide. The West, with all its military might, with its capacity to intervene, would turn its back on innocent women and children being brutally murdered. A failure to act in Syria, a failure to destroy Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles, would be our generation’s Rwanda moment. Failing to act is complicity. If we have firm intelligence indicating the location of Assad’s chemical warfare research and production facilities, and fail to destroy them, we are just as much responsible for the murder of Syrian children subjected to chlorine and Sarin gas as Assad. Without action, thousands more would die a torturous death at the hands of these banned weapons. The moral philosopher Peter Singer would argue: ”If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards from me or a resident of the developing world, whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.” I believe this moral principle is applicable here. If we have the capacity to intervene, to save the lives of Syrians, yet fail to do so, it is our moral failing. Deaths would be on our hands. For this reason Trump’s strikes on Assad’s chemical warfare facilities were morally justified.