The suspected nerve agent attack on a rebel-held area on Tuesday has underlined the regime’s confidence – bolstered by the Trump administration
Heartbreaking images of desperate patients and dead children in Syria are, sadly, too familiar. But Tuesday’s attack in rebel-held Idlib province has forced a reaction: it is one of the worst suspected chemical attacks in the six-year war. It claimed at least 67 lives, and the symptoms suggest the use of a nerve agent, probably sarin. It hit an area where thousands had taken shelter from fighting nearby. It was followed by attacks on medical facilities treating victims. It had “all the hallmarks of a regime attack”, said Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations. The White House accused the Syrian government of a “heinous” attack.
Damascus denies using chemical weapons, and ascertaining the agents used, by whom, is always difficult – particularly given the problems experts will face in accessing the site. Nonetheless, the evidence so far points in one direction, not least because sarin is not easy to produce. In 2013, under threat of US strikes after sarin gas killed up to 1,300 in Ghouta, a besieged district in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad agreed to eliminate his chemical weapons stores . But a UN security council report warned last year that the regime had continued to carry out chlorine attacks on civilians (Islamic State had also used sulphur-mustard gas). Human Rights Watch has documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, including systematic use in Aleppo. The suspicion is that Tuesday’s strike, like another suspected sarin attack which killed 93 people in eastern Hama in December, is retaliation by an increasingly confident regime for the military pressure it has faced in the area: having pushed back, it wanted payback – at the cost of civilians.