On Tuesday, April 4, Syria was rocked by “the worst chemical attack in years,” according to numerous media outlets, including the New York Times. Early in the morning, planes dropped bombs around the city of Khan Sheikhoun in western Syria. Shortly afterwards, toxic gas, which has now been identified as sarin, began to spread. Witnesses described a yellow, foggy cloud appearing as the bombs exploded. People immediately began choking on the chemical, foaming from the mouth and collapsing in the streets. Other symptoms included red eyes, narrowing pupils, and fluid in the lungs. As a result of the asphyxiation and fluid, some deaths were immediate. Because the physical cloud quickly dissipated, the first rescue workers did not know there were chemicals in the air, so they too breathed them in and fell ill. Sarin gas, a nerve agent, was one of the main gases involved. Sarin is a fast-acting, extremely toxic gas and is considered a banned weapon of mass destruction.
At least 87 people died as a result of the chemical attack, and many of them were children. Hundreds of others were injured. The attack was not as deadly as the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta (near Damascus), which killed around 3,600 people, but it has still had severe consequences. One result has been increased tension between Syria, the United States, and Russia.
President Donald Trump has concluded that the planes dropped bombs containing the banned chemicals and were sent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, Assad has denied the accusations, calling them “100% fabrication,” and saying, “there was no order to make any attack. We don’t have any chemical weapons.” After the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, former President Barack Obama said he would stall military intervention unless chemical weapons were used again. Therefore, this attack, if initiated by Assad, would be breaking that deal. However, Russia’s Defense Ministry provided an alternative explanation to the cause, saying the Syrian planes bombed warehouses that contained the chemicals, therefore causing them to leak out. A White House official responded, “It’s clear that the Russian’s are trying to cover up what happened here.” Supporting the United States’ opinion, France’s representative to the United Nations’ Security Council stated, “there was significant evidence that the event had not resulted from an airstrike on a warehouse belonging to rebel group,” and UK Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” Assad was the initiator. Additionally, there are beliefs that Assad’s army is the only force in the region capable of administering this type of attack. Assad instead blames the attack on al-Qaeda.
On Friday, April 7, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired by US warships at Shayrat Airfield, the airbase from where the supposed planes used in the chemical attack were dispatched. They were intended to damage infrastructure housing the chemical weapons, meaning several people were killed, but deaths were not the goal. In response to the chemical attack, on April 7 President Trump said, “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.” This was the first direct attack on Assad’s forces by the United States throughout the Syrian Civil War.
The United States’ response has been met with criticism from many sides, nationally and globally. Many people are condemning Trump because he said, in a September 7, 2013 tweet, after the Ghouta attack, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Obama did not end up attacking Syria, mainly because he did not think he would get Congressional approval. However, Trump authorized the recent air strikes without Congressional approval.
While the Russians were given notice about the US airstrikes, they were still opposed to the action, as Russian President Vladimir Putin described them as “‘an act of aggression against a sovereign state’ that ‘dealt a serious blow to Russia-US relations.’” In the past weeks, Russia has sent more ships, some of which can fire long-range missiles, to Tartus, a Russian naval base in Syria-controlled waters. Russian state media said the ships, “will operate in the region in accordance to the changing military situation.”
Debates have emerged over the meaning of the US airstrikes. During Trump’s campaign, he was adamantly against military intervention in Syria. People have wondered whether Trump’s recent decision to attack means a change of heart. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured Americans that this is not a “change in our policy or our posture in Syria.” The attacks were supposedly only meant to condemn the use of chemical weapons. Only time will tell what will come from the situation.