Almost exactly a year ago, in the early hours of the morning, Syrian fighter jets dropped bombs on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, outside the city of Idlib. Within minutes, a nerve gas began to envelop residents, convulsing their bodies and choking them to death. More than 80 men, women and children died.
Once again, as had happened before when the Assad regime used chemical weapons, there was an international outcry and a clamour for action. Something must be done, the analysts bayed, to enforce a global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in war.
The response, when it came, was celebrated, as US President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on the Syrian airbase from which the chemical weapons strike was apparently launched, the first time the US military had conducted such an attack during the Syrian civil war.
But although Mr Trump’s military response exacted a price from the regime and was praised for it, as a way to enforce the global prohibition on such weapons it failed.
Far from enforcing a deterrent, the response actually undermined the whole principle of deterrence. Because the point of the response was not to merely “punish” the regime for its use of chemical weapons but to ensure that the regime never thought of using such weapons again. And as the attack last week in Eastern Ghouta showed, that clearly did not happen.
The use of chemical weapons has served a valuable purpose for the Assad regime. So far, after relentless shelling of the besieged enclave, thousands have left or been evacuated from Eastern Ghouta. The use of chemical weapons is a powerful psychological tool to flush out the rest, as well as sending a warning to other areas still under rebel control, such as Idlib, of what might – indeed, almost certainly will – happen.
Certainly, their use comes at a political cost but, as has been demonstrated so far, it is a cost that the regime is willing to pay….
The prohibition on the use of chemical weapons has stood for decades. It formed part of the framework of the international order, the idea that even war could be subject to rules, norms and laws and that some weapons were simply too deadly to be used. Today, that prohibition has been effectively overturned. In the long term, that might be one of the worst legacies of the Syrian war.