Exactly a year ago, the Syrian government dropped missiles loaded with sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun, a town just south of the rebel-run Idlib province. A total of 80 people were killed. Among the dead were those who had come out of their shelters to aid the wounded. The poison gas killed them instantly. There was, at the time, global outrage. The United States responded to that atrocity by launching airstrikes against a Syrian base. The missile attack was meant to send a message: the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated.
A year on, however, Bashar Al Assad has once again made a mockery of Washington’s “red line” by launching yet another chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta, already decimated by the regime's relentless bombardment and siege. On Saturday at least 49 people in Douma were killed as their town was bombarded with bombs loaded with chlorine gas. Rebels leading the insurgency had already left Eastern Ghouta. So what was the aim of the chemical weapons? The answer is clear: for Mr Al Assad to strike terror into the hearts of the civilians and to crush any hopes they might nurture of political reform. Chemical warfare is the weapon of choice for Mr Al Assad. As horrifying details and images emerge of men, women and children choking and foaming at the mouths as they die in the most excruciating of circumstances, Mr Al Assad's barbarism cannot be allowed to carry on unchecked.
It cannot be coincidence that the attack comes just days after the triumvirate of his backers – Iran, Turkey and Russia – met in Ankara, giving him the authority to stamp his brutality on what is left of his opposition. As US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauret said, the regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately.
Mr Al Assad has been emboldened by the world's apathy to expand his killing spree. The first chemical attack took place in 2012 in Idlib; in the years since, multiple provinces of Syria have been attacked with chemicals. French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to strike Syria if evidence of the use of chemical weapons was proven. But as Syrians bury the men, women and children killed in yet another chemical weapons attack, his promise seems hollow. The funerals of the victims of Mr Al Assad's latest chemical weapons attack coincide with recent statements by US president Donald Trump that he is considering withdrawing troops from Syria. There could not be a clearer signal to Mr Al Assad to continue the carnage. He has driven his opponents to Idlib and will no doubt turn his attention there once he has obliterated Eastern Ghouta. The rebels there are strongly armed, but they stand no chance against chemical attacks. And it is chemical weapons Mr Al Assad will deploy as he destroys every last remnant of opposition to him. The world, he knows, will look the other way.