The images are gut-wrenching. In one video, a man tries to revive a child, a boy perhaps three or four years old, by pouring water over his face, rubbing him, attempting a futile resuscitation. The boy is pale and limp and appears to have died. Around him there are more bodies in similar states of death or near-death, prostrate on a floor. Men move around with the kinetic energy of those overwhelmed by a catastrophe and lacking the knowledge and the tools to save the victims. Oddly, there is no blood. It is as if everyone has drowned.
This was only one of the jerky videos to emerge from the horrifying tragedy that appears to have occurred on Wednesday morning in Ghouta, an area near Damascus that has been dominated by the rebels fighting the Assad régime in Syria. In a civil war that has now claimed over a hundred thousand lives—and in which there have been many atrocities, including several previous large-scale massacres—what happened in the Ghouta region appears to surpass anything that has come before. The body count of what is being described by rebels as a chemical-weapons attack by the régime—that allegation is as yet unverified—has been said to range as high as thirteen hundred. The nerve gas sarin is said to cause some of the symptoms seen in the video, though there are also reasons to suspect that some other agent was responsible.
On Wednesday morning, when the first reports of the attack emerged, there was talk of dozens of victims, and then hundreds. And then, coinciding with the videos being posted online, the estimated numbers began to soar. One of the first tweets I saw about the news said that Syria now had its “Halabja”—a reference to the chemical-weapons attack on the insurgent Kurdish town of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s military in 1988, which killed as many as five thousand civilians. At the time, Saddam was a tacit ally of the West, fighting a gruesomely bloody conflict against neighboring Iran, in an earlier version of the lethal Sunni-Shiite split which has now made Syria its central battleground. Saddam initially denied responsibility for Halabja, although it later emerged that his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid—or, as his enemies knew him, “Chemical Ali”—had carried it out, just as he had many other chemical attacks in the war from 1980 to 1988, in which as many as a million Iranians and Iraqis died. The reaction of the Reagan Administration, which had been providing Saddam’s military with information of the Iranian troop concentrations from AWACS surveillance in order to assist his missile-targeting against them, was initially to side with Saddam by suggesting that Iran had also used chemical weapons in the fighting. It was a shameful attempt at disinformation. Before long, when the facts of the attack became obvious, the U.S. position was amended.
The Halabja episode is an example of the nettlesome moral politics that arise whenever there are allegations of chemical-weapons use. The great powers agreed to ban their use in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, a covenant which most other nations eventually signed onto. With few exceptions—Saddam Hussein the most notorious among them—chemical weapons have rarely been used since. Until Syria’s conflict, that is. The Assad government is known to have large stocks of chemical weapons, dispersed at several locations around the country, and over the past six months there have been a number of reports of limited chemical-weapons use on the Syrian battlefield . If the attacks in Ghouta involved a chemical agent, then surely the “red line” that President Obama drew regarding such weapons a year ago—and that his Administration has previously conceded has been crossed—just become an avenue. Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, spoke of Ghouta as merely the latest instance of many in which the Assad régime had deployed chemical weapons.
It is noteworthy, and not a little odd, that the attack at Ghouta occurred just days after the arrival in Damascus of a team of U.N. chemical-weapons inspectors, and it raises the question of why the Assad government would so handily deliver evidence of its suspected malfeasance to the international community. It is also surprising, since, in recent weeks, the Assad régime has had the upper hand in the conflict. However, dictatorial régimes and their militaries can be stupid as well as criminal—see Saddam’s coyness, in the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, about whether or not he still had concealed W.M.D.s. It is also possible, as some weapons experts have speculated, that whatever killed the people seen in the videos was not a nerve gas like sarin but something else, which is still unknown. According to a Western diplomat in the region, “The régime denies doing it, but the key test is whether they now facilitate immediate access by the U.N. expert team currently in Damascus.”
In the end, what seems clear is that throughout Syria, and in the outskirts of the capital, one of the world’s oldest—if not the oldest—continuously inhabited cities, a terrible bloodletting is going on. However the victims are chosen, or by which means they die, and whether they are innocent children or civilian women or men who have taken up arms, it is a human tragedy of the most appalling proportions—one that the Obama Administration has proven incapable or unwilling to do much to alter. If it turns out that the Assad régime did use sarin in Ghouta, then logic suggests that perhaps it did so to test the West’s resolve regarding any notional remaining “red line” that might dictate military action. If it, in fact, didn’t use a chemical weapon, then the atrocity will soon fade from public attention to join the half-remembered hundreds of others that have made up this conflict, with no red lines in sight.
The Western diplomat suggested, however, that the Ghouta massacre seemed already to represent a game changer for some Western powers, and that the time had probably come for tough decisions to be made by President Obama: “My own personal view is that, like anyone else, Americans will be held responsible for the consequences of what you don’t do as well as what you do.”