Let’s begin this article by setting out some facts from the past month: On the 4th March 2018, a military-grade chemical weapon was deployed on the streets of a small English cathedral city. It was the first time a chemical weapon has been used to target individuals in Europe since the Second World War. Just over a month later, on the seventh of April, chemical weapons were unleashed on the people of Douma, in Syria. A medical student who was working in a local hospital told the BBC that children were brought to him ‘foaming at the mouth, coughing blood, with discoloured skin and impaired vision.’
Twice in the space of a month, the world has seen the horrifying reality of chemical warfare. These incidents follow on from three other confirmed uses of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, the worst resulting in the deaths of at least 350 people in Ghouta in 2013. This horrific form of warfare, outlawed by the Geneva Protocol for almost 100 years, is beginning to become commonplace once again in our volatile world. Now, following the unprecedented frequency of their use, the world stands at an important crossroads; enforce the international standard against the use of chemical weapons, or face the reality of innocent civilians all over the world being left to the mercy of sarin, chlorine or worse.
Once, it would have been within the remit of the United Nations to recognise and prevent these atrocities, and to enforce international law. However, given the possession of a veto on the Security Council by Russia, a state that both defends the use of, and employs chemical warfare, the chance of action from the UN is close to zero. The relentless disinformation campaign employed by the Russians, alongside their allies Syria and Iran, seems to have successfully duped some in the West, including their ever useful idiot Jeremy Corbyn. The defence of the Assad regime by Moscow effectively rules out an international consensus on action, and for some in the West, that is enough to rule out action altogether.
But it is inaction itself that has led us to this position in the first place. In 2013, in the aftermath of the deadliest chemical weapons attack the 21st century has so far seen, Western powers resolved not to allow Assad’s regime to cross the so-called red line of chemical warfare without repercussions. When it was proposed to the British Parliament by then Prime Minister David Cameron, MPs narrowly rejected striking Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, following opposition from the Labour Party, and several rebel Tories. Across the Atlantic, President Obama asked for Congressional approval for strikes against the Assad regime and, just as in Westminster, Congress said no. Assad had successfully launched a chemical weapons attack against his own people and faced no consequences for his actions.
It is not illogical to suggest that this emboldened Assad to continue to gas his own people, as he did in Kahn Shaykun last year, killing over a hundred civilians. But it is also the case that the inaction of the West in 2013 thoroughly undermined the very basis of the international norm against chemical weapons which had historically deterred the use of the most inhumane weapons of war. It would be provident to ask whether Russia would have been so bold as to have overseen a chemical weapons attack on the streets of Britain, had we enforced a firm red line against their use five years ago.
Now, after the latest chemical atrocity in Syria at the hands of the regime and their Russian backers, we were presented with one final chance to enforce the red line against chemical warfare. The strikes on Syrian chemical weapons plants, and not, as some Putin apologists would have you believe, anywhere near to civilian centres, have shown Damascus, Moscow and Tehran that the West will never again stand back as rogue regimes gas their own peoples. Indeed, this week begins with Assad significantly less capable of massacring Syrian children with gas, all because of the brave decision by the UK, US and France to say enough is enough. Theresa May said in her statement following the strikes that when the global rules and standards that keep us safe come under threat, we must take a stand and defend them. Indeed, it is what we as a country have always done, and it is what we must always do.
Jack Emsley is a graduate of King’s College London.