Former President Barack Obama did not retaliate against the Assad regime in 2013 after clear evidence of chemical weapons use against civilians.
Chemical weapons use in Syria has once again come to light after the Assad regime likely dropped chemical weapons on hundreds civilians in rebel held territory Tuesday. The attack killed nearly 60 people, and injured hundreds of others. Videos from the scene of the attack show the ground littered with the bodies of suffocated women and children.
The scene is reminiscent of the Assad regime’s 2013 Sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs which killed nearly 1000 people. Prior to the attack Obama appeared at the White House podium to declare “We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Despite pressure from his own advisors, the international community, NATO, and U.S. allies, Obama demurred on his “red line.” Obama instead opted for a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime, in which Assad would give up his chemical weapons arsenal.
An Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons 2016 report later confirmed that Assad repeatedly violated the Russian brokered deal, and held on to some of his chemical weapons arsenal. He also repeatedly used chlorine gas against civilians, weapons which were not included in the deal. Assad also just simply turned to using convention weapons against the civilian population, killing hundreds of thousands in the ensuing years.
“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic of his decision not to strike the Assad regime in 2013. He elaborated, “I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
Tuesday’s attack by Assad regime is likely an emboldened response to statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept,” Spicer said of dropping unequivocal U.S. opposition to Assad. Tillerson previewed the change in U.S. policy Mar 30 when he declared that “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, have no compunction with killing thousands of civilians to try and bring an end to the Syrian civil war. The axis will likely continue these attacks, paired with conventional weapons use, to reduce the territory controlled by Syrian rebels to an absolute minimum. The less territory rebels control in Syria, the more bargaining power the regime will have in a peace talk framework.
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