Syria 7th anniversary: the use of chemical weapons as a game changer

The Syrian armed conflict entered its seventh year and the violence continues unabated, so much to become the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict. The multisided war has wracked a country whose survival is still at stake and since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, the humanitarian situation has deeply worsened. Syria has continuously witnessed human rights violations, a disrespect for the standards of international law, humanitarian challenges and financial measures imposed on the economy that completely hit every productive sector. A crisis characterized by strikes on schools, hospitals, water mains, energy plants, civilian infrastructures, by depletion of savings and of food, and all this has contributed to exacerbating the extreme vulnerability of the population across the country.

The UN Envoy for Syria estimates that since the outbreak of the war in March 2011 approximately 400.000 Syrians have been killed, including civilians and fighters on all sides, and above 11 million people are displaced, many for the second or third time, within and outside the borders. According to the UNHCR, 5.6 million have escaped the devasted Syria and are seeking safety in Turkey (63.4%), Lebanon (17.6%), Jordan (11.7%), Iraq (4.4%) and Egypt (2.3%), around 1 million is applying for asylum in Europe, especially in Germany which records the highest number of applications, whereas 6.1 million are internally displaced. Among the last group, perhaps the most vulnerable one, 2.8 million are children. A report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) affirms that, from March 2011 until March 2017, about 25.000 children were killed and the majority (85,18%) were murdered by the regime forces and the Iranian militias. Children are paying the heaviest price for war and one in four is at risk of physical and mental health problems. Furthermore, they are out of school and the insecurity environment, which has become year after year more intense, increased the gender-based violence on girls and the exploitation of child labour and forced recruitment of child soldiers.

Numerous actors – NGOs, the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc), agencies of UN – are making considerable efforts in providing assistance, first of all in the form of food distribution and health services provision, but only a political solution will make the difference on the harsh conditions Syrians are facing. In addition, the access to many civilian areas for humanitarian workers and journalists has frequently been restricted by the government hindering their help and, on top of that, these actors are often targets of torture and detention.   

This year marks even the 6th anniversary of the peace talks conducted by the United Nations. The initiatives are focused on the government unity but despite the apparent defeat of ISIS and the implementation of four de-escalation zones in 2017, the attempts under the auspices of the United Nations to find a solution and bring stability in the region are so far unsuccessful. Alongside the longest running Geneva peace process, diplomatic talks have been promoted by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. The negotiations include a ceasefire plan across Syria, a new settlement of the country and political changes, as the introduction of decentralized authorities and the strengthening of the parliament. Astana’s contribution is to embrace in the negotiations members of the opposition groups.

The enduring conflict which seems to have no end is a nest of territorial claims, economic interests and power projections and the intervention of the coalition United States-France-Great Britain in the early hours of 14 April did nothing more than put wood on the fire. In response to the chemical attack occurred on 7 April in Douma, a rebel-held city in the northeast of Damascus, the decision of Donald Trump and his European allies to launch precision air strikes on three targets linked with the chemical weapon capabilities of the Syrian regime was intended to deter the use of banned weapons and to punish insistent violations of the international law. Indeed, in 2013 Syria ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a multilateral treaty aimed at prohibiting the development, production and use of chemical weapons within a limited period of time (in the case of Syria, the deadline was set for 30 June 2014). The CWC entered in force on April 1997 and replaced the 1925 Geneva Protocol since it banned “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids” but not the production, the development or the possession of such weapons. CWC provides therefore a more comprehensive and exhaustive structure of protection than previous treaties.

After the Ghouta attack with rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin in August 2013, Russia and United States appealed for an acceleration of Syria’s arsenal destruction and in accordance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, unanimously adopted, President Assad declared to immediately observe the CWC obligations. Despite the UN mission reaffirmed that “the proliferation of chemical weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security”, the Syrian regime has repeatedly broken these commitments without any regard for its own citizens. The first wide-scale use of chemical weapons from the beginning of the hostilities occurred in Ghouta in 2013, followed by Talmenes in 2014, Sarmin in 2015, again Ghouta in 2016, Khan Shaykhun in 2017 and Douma in 2018.

Nikki Haley, United States’ Ambassador United Nations, shows pictures of Syrian victims of chemical attacks as she addresses a meeting of the Security Council on Syria at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Every forceful action against the government with the international law violation as justification has been avoided by the Western powers in order to not intensify atrocities and suffering but the combined response of United States, France and Great Britain has reversed the pattern. The red line set by the Western allies on the usage of chemical weapons against civilians has been crossed and while United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres worries an escalation of violence, Donald Trump warns that the intervention will continue until the complete destruction of the arsenal.  

Despite Russia was notified beforehand, President Putin denounced the threat and accused Trump to have intervened exactly when peace talks were making some progress. The two global powers are unwilling to pursue a direct confrontation in Cold War-style but since the US has shown its military prestigious, it seems unlikely that would not carry out further strikes in case of chemical attack as it seems unlikely that Moscow would stop the military coordination and the support for Bashar al-Assad.

The next moves of President Trump will be crucial to elucidate the American plan to hamper the triangle Russia-Syria-Iran but it is important to stress that multilateral negotiations represent the sole route for achieving a political solution in Syria and if peace and stability are the purposes, international actors have to prioritize the cooperation instead of the competition.

To conclude, it is necessary  to remind the outcome of the Western involvement into Iraq, when the US invaded the country in 2003 and ordered the execution of President Saddam Hussein. The global power oversaw the reconstruction of the country and after billions of investments in humanitarian aid and economic assistance, the American-led occupation did not promote political stability and failed in fostering economy and in ensuring security. In the past decade, Iraqis made some progress but due to the refugee crisis, the ISIS threat and the growing sectarianism, the country remains weak and a challenge to the stability of the region. This US historical failure has proved to be a clear lesson for the Obama Administration which was reluctant to directly intervene alongside the rebels and to remove Assad, but the Trump’s policy might back away from this stance.


Anna Tagliapietra

Nata in provincia di Udine nel 1992, si laurea presso l’Università di Bologna in International Affairs, concentrando gli studi sul Medio Oriente, sulle interferenze occidentali nella regione e sui conflitti politico-religiosi che vi perdurano irrisolti. Curiosa e amante dei viaggi, grazie al programma Erasmus ha avuto la possibilità di studiare a Coimbra e a Budapest e lavorare a Valencia. Si definisce una cittadina di radici italiane ma con nazionalità diverse. Nutre una forte passione per le lingue straniere, per il giornalismo e il fotogiornalismo su cui ha sviluppato la tesi magistrale, per la politica estera e per tutti i problemi che affliggono il nostro pianeta, dal cambiamento climatico alle disuguaglianze di genere. Grazie alla collaborazione con SocialNews può coltivare e unire le passioni per il giornalismo e per la geopolitica. I diritti umani sono per lei un patrimonio universale, irrinunciabile in qualsiasi relazione interpersonale. 


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