US President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be "a game changer". Photo: AP
AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands – US President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand, and warned dictators around the world not to cross it. Washington, he said, would not tolerate the use of poison gas by despotic regimes.
There is growing evidence that Syria’s President Bashar Assad, facing an armed popular uprising that is in its third year and in which an estimated 70,000 people have died, has crossed Obama;s “red line.”
The White House has reportedly told Congress that US intelligence has concluded with “some degree of varying confidence” that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas. One of those attacks was apparently an April 13 use of cyanide gas in the Kurdish city of Aleppo.
If this were a playground dare, the only face saving gesture would have been for Obama to punch the bully in the nose. But because politics is based on interests, not principles, the debate now is over whether the bully crossed the whole line, or just stepped over with his toe.
British, Israeli and US officials now confirm that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against Syrians. But they remain cautious about getting involved in the Syrian civil war.
“The US and UK are desperate not to get involved in Syria on the ground,” a chemical weapons expert told Rudaw.
“The regime’s posture is that they think the red line is quite wide, and hope it is very wide,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical weapons unit.
Assad “will continue to use improvised chemical weapons sporadically, I expect, to achieve local tactical advantage,” he said. “They probably believe that the US feels that support for a UN inspection team is good enough for now. The regime is not going to let the UN inspectors in any time soon, because that will prove what Assad is doing,” he added.
Bretton-Gordon said that the United States and Britain do not want a repeat of its 2003 fiasco, when a US-led coalition attacked Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein, charging he was stockpiling chemical weapons, but then finding none.
“They don’t want to repeat that. Hence, they’ll make the red line as wide as possible,” he said, adding that he believes only a Halabja-type attack – such as the one that killed 5,000 Kurds following a poison gas attack by Saddam’s forces in 1988 -- would provoke international intervention.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, High Representative to the UK from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, in a letter in The Times newspaper urged the British foreign secretary to hold the Assad regime to account for its use of chemical weapons.
“The world must condemn any chemical weapons attacks in Syria -- the Kurdish people in Iraq know the effects only too well,” she wrote.
Although the KRG did not mention an attack on Syrian Kurds, a report by the Medical Committee at the Bihar Relief Organization in Syria claimed that on April 13, the Sheikh Maqsud neighborhood of the Kurdish city of Aleppo was attacked by suspected chemical bombs.
Two months-old babies and a woman were reported killed in the alleged air attack, it said, adding that people affected by the incident were taken to the Afrin Hospital in Aleppo.
It also said that nine people were poisoned by chemical gas, and that six paramedics were infected while helping victims.
“It was a small-scale attack that hit one house in Sheikh Maqsud, so people say it’s sort of a blur to the international community’s red line,” Thomas Mcgee, an expert on Syrian Kurds, told Rudaw. ”Or, it was a test to see how committed the international community is to acting on Syria,” he added.
”People consider that chemical weapons are being gradually introduced incrementally in order to normalize their use. Evidence of any use of chemical weapons as such must be treated very seriously, irrespective of the scale,” Mcgee sad.
Barzan Iso, a Kurdish journalist from Syria, told Rudaw that doctors at Efrin hospital had identified the use of cyanide in Sheikh Maqsud. “I showed the photos to some experts, and they told me also it looks like cyanide gas. Cyanide gas does not mix with air, and that’s why it just killed people in the house that was bombed,” he said.