On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s office denied that his forces used chlorine gas in an attack in Aleppo earlier in the week. The Syrian Civil Defence, a rescue workers’ organization, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights both said the Syrian government used a helicopter to drop two barrel bombs loaded with gas on residents in the Sukari neighborhood in eastern Aleppo. 80 people were reported to have been injured by the gas, though no deaths were reported.
In a statement published by the official SANA state news agency, the Syrian government claimed, “The real criminal in all cases in which gases were used was armed terrorist groups who carry out the instructions of their masters in order to defame the achievements of the Syrian Arab Army.”
On Wednesday, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcus reacted to the Aleppo incident, coming short of confirming the accusations against the Syrian forces.
“Such allegations are taken very seriously. The use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances is unacceptable,” said Uzumcus.
A recent investigation by the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) determined that Assad’s military forces used chemical weapons in two previous incidents in contravention of international law. In both cases, chlorine gas was dropped on civilian houses. They also determined that Islamic State (ISIS) forces, who are fighting against the Assad regime, used sulfur mustard gas in an attack in Aleppo in 2015. The investigation was unable to verify which side was responsible for using chemical weapons in six other incidents.
These incidents raise serious questions about US President Barack Obama’s policy concerning Syria. In 2012, President Obama stated that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that if crossed, would bring about a US strike. In a press conference in August 2012, Obama said:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
The statement was though to be an unequivocal expression defining American policy in Syria. One year later, in August 2013, 1,500 people were killed, including 400 children, when Assad’s forces used Sarin gas. A US military response was expected, but never happened. In a press conference in Stockholm Obama stated, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
In lieu of the military option, the US and Russia brokered an international agreement requiring Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpile. Recent developments indicate that Assad considers the agreement less than binding.