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Moment that mattered: Chemical weapons are used in the Syrian conflict


I first heard about the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta through Twitter. We’d heard lots of false reports of attacks and I thought this might be another one – it seemed strange that it had happened in a suburb of Damascus. There had been reports of chemical weapon attacks in the north of the country, near Aleppo, but the regime hadn’t yet been accused of a chemical attack on such a scale.

It took four days before there was a formal response from the international community and that was prompted by Médecins Sans Frontières saying they had seen thousands of victims in their hospitals with neurotoxic symptoms consistent with a chemical weapon attack. It took so long because although there are international journalists in Syria they weren’t near the affected area, and the reports coming out weren’t based on solid sources. It’s hard to get information from Syria at the best of times, but when entire suburbs of the city are cut off it’s extremely difficult to know what’s happening.

Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist – and there are many conspiracies around – you’re going to conclude that the Assad regime was behind the attack simply because of the delivery capability. The rebels don’t have an air force or even have the ability to use conventional weapons on a large scale. Doing something on this scale simply wouldn’t have been possible.

The attack had major consequences for the proxy war taking place between Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and China on the regime’s side, and the US, UK, France, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the other side – but for most Syrians not directly affected by it, it was just another attack in a bloody war. I can’t speak for Syrians but I think many believe it’s crazy how 1,000 deaths from one incident created more international outrage than more than 100,000 deaths in countless incidents over the past two and half years.

The attack put Syria back on the news agenda. People had been losing interest. I noticed I was getting far fewer calls from the BBC and other broadcasters around June and July, but suddenly it was right at the top of the agenda again because Western countries were debating the use of military action.

For the West, the attack had consequences in terms of international relations. The US didn’t want regime change; they’re gaining from an ongoing war of attrition which wears down both the Assad regime and the Islamists from around the world who’ve joined the more extreme elements of the opposition. They wanted to make a political point, to punish Assad for crossing a red line. Neither the Russians nor the Americans want to see Assad overthrown so they were able to reach a compromise. But for most Syrians it’s probably not a landmark moment in the war – that would more likely be the Homs offensive in February 2012 or it was the Jisr al-Shughour massacre right at the start of the revolution in June 2011.

That said, the West’s response has emboldened the Assad regime, which has been in the ascendant since the start of the year. It’s unlikely to use chemical weapons in the future, although it’s uncertain what that ever achieved other than terrorising civilians. Last year the regime was in trouble but now the opposition is so divided they’re quite comfortable. When I was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan last year people told me they expected to be home soon. But now a whole city has been created, with shops, cafes and taxi companies. People know they won’t be returning to Syria any time soon

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