Syrian chemical attacks: there's more to justice than assigning blame

The global chemical weapons watchdog is set to confirm that Syria's president gassed his own people, but his victims already knew that

FILE - This file  image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through a respirator following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been thrust once again into the international limelight by a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain and allegations of a chemical bombardment on the Syrian city of Douma. It is now attempting to investigate, but its experts have not yet been able to visit the scene. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
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Three years ago this week, I met a man called Abdul Hamid Al Yousef. He had endured a tragedy like no other.

Two days earlier, he had buried his wife and two infant children, who had suffocated to death in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. Nearly 20 members of his immediate and extended family had died in the second deadliest chemical attack of the ongoing Syrian civil war. The atrocity was carried out by the forces of Bashar Al Assad.

I sat next to Al Yousef at his home in the town. He seemed to drift mentally in and out of the room. A visitor told him a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad about Al Sirat, the bridge that all people must cross on the day of judgment, suspended above hell and leading to paradise. The hadith speaks of a reward for those who lose their children at a young age and endure the loss with forbearance – their babies will have wings and will fly them across the bridge to eternal joy. The story seemed to rouse Al Yousef from his stupor.

That was three years ago. Two years ago, another chemical attack took place in the city of Douma, also carried out by Al Assad's forces, which claimed the lives of 40 to 50 people. It appears there may be no justice for Al Yousef nor the other victims of chemical warfare in Syria until the afterlife.

More than half a million people have been killed in nine years of war in Syria, felled by everything from explosive barrels dropped from the sky to the slow death of starvation sieges. But chemical weapons still evoke a particular horror. Perhaps it is the insidiousness of the air you breathe in poisoning you, or the sheer violence and terror of the symptoms but without any blood, as though the victims’ own bodies are betraying them from within. Maybe it is the barbarism and impunity such weaponry evokes, so cruel that they were banned a century ago by the global community of nations.

At any rate, it prompted the US administration, under Barack Obama at the time, at the time to infamously draw a red line in the sand, warning that the use of chemical weapons would change its calculus on intervention in the Syrian war. But when Al Assad gassed over a thousand civilians in August 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus, Mr Obama blinked. Instead, a deal was inked to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in order to head off any American assault.

But Damascus, as it transpired, held on to some of its stockpile. And it used it again.

Chemical weapons still evoke a particular horror; the victims' own bodies are betraying them from within

In addition to the deadliest attacks of the war, which used large quantities of the chemicals sarin and chlorine, activists and paramedics have documented dozens of instances in which smaller quantities of chlorine were used. The substance's use is morbidly popular because it causes terror without inflicting the kind of mass casualties that draw international attention. It is also because chlorine has legitimate domestic and industrial uses and so it cannot be proscribed. In total, more than 300 separate chemical attacks have been recorded by independent observers.

The Al Assad regime has now largely reclaimed most of the country, with the aid of Russia and Iran. An assault on one of the last regions outside of its control, the province of Idlib on the Turkish border, is frozen because of a ceasefire deal and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The regime is largely shielded from prosecution in the International Criminal Court despite its repeated atrocities because of Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council.

Nevertheless, a report this week by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which investigated chemical attacks in Syria, has found that the Al Assad regime is responsible for a number of chemical attacks in the country, and is continuing to investigate other incidents to attribute responsibility.

Attributing blame for these heinous attacks is an important milestone and an essential step, for posterity, in establishing responsibility. Syria is the most well-documented conflict in modern history. The OPCW’s report is crucial because it further entrenches this truth: we cannot say that we did not know.

But it is not enough. Attribution of blame does not equal justice for the victims. The international community must move heaven and earth to ensure that the perpetrators of the gravest crimes in Syria–  whether they are chemical attacks, the bombing of hospitals, the massacring of ethnic and religious minorities, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, or the starvation sieges – are held accountable.

The costs are enormous otherwise. It would mean that the worst excesses of violence in Syria can be enshrined as the normal conduct of warfare. Bombing hospitals becomes normal; starving people to death becomes normal; ethnic cleansing becomes normal and chemical weapons become normal again. It means the empowerment of inhumanity among people. It means taking 100 years' worth of steps backwards.

Justice must be done, for Abdul Hamid Al Yousef and others. If not today, then one day. They should not have to wait until the afterlife.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada