On April 7th, 2018 a number of sources reported an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held city of Douma in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta. Exact numbers of casualties are hard to ascertain, however the UOSSM reports a figure of forty-two killed as a direct result of said chemical attacks. The BBC reported a figure as high as seventy. In the days that followed, the deadliest proxy-conflict in contemporary politics has escalated to new levels.
U.S. President Trump has taken to Twitter to warn Putin, not Assad, that missiles will be fired at Syria in response to the alleged chemical attack. The French and British, albeit more hesitant, are also drafting plans to strike Syrian targets within coming days. Macron’s hands are somewhat tied on the matter given his earlier, vehement insistence on retaliation to chemical weapons use in Aleppo; ‘When you set out red lines, if you are unable to enforce them, then you decide to be weak’. By focusing emotions on the obligation to react, when to act and in what capacity to do so, one overlooks the complex reality of the conflict.
Scores of innocent civilians were killed and we were none the wiser
The weekend attack was only the second alleged chemical attack to make mainstream media since the disturbing footage of Sarin gas casualties in Aleppo. Both attacks have sparked a public outcry to uphold humanitarian law, receiving heavy coverage and debate in parliament. The reality is that the double-strike on Douma this weekend was, at the very least, the fifth alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta since January 2018. The previous attack was recorded on the 25th February 2018.
In each of these alleged chemicals attacks, scores of innocent civilians were killed and we were none the wiser. In February, as in January, and as recently as this week, the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that ‘leaders of illegal armed formations in the Eastern Ghouta are preparing a provocation using poisonous agents in order to accuse the government forces of using chemical weapons against civilians’. There was no mention of previous chemical attacks by the UK or US press in 2018 until now. Therefore, one must ask, does the media, complicit with Russia’s MoD, possess superior intelligence that disregards earlier attacks as provocations and not this most recent one? This is unlikely given that the open-source investigation published by Bellingcat is no more conclusive than those on previous incidents. While there is photo and video evidence of all incidents, it has been unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they are not fabricated provocations. Open-source investigations prove to be the most reliable source of information to validate and test these allegations given that access to the area is blocked off and access to reporters denied.
We must not blindly accept any retaliation on the part of the UK as ‘humanitarian intervention’ in response to the ‘violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention’. If that rhetoric is to be applied, it demonstrates a clear selection bias and an inconsistency in western policy on the matter. The purpose of this article is to encourage greater scrutiny of the western response that will follow in the coming days. If there is to be a forceful retaliation, its motivations are much more complex than human rights.