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On April 4, the world woke up to the news that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army had conducted airstrikes targeting the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held province of Idlib. The attack killed 85 people, including 16 women and 23 children, and wounded over 350. Images of the victims choking and gasping for breath on social media and reports from Doctors Without Borders, which supports medical clinics in rebel-held areas, led to the conclusion that it had been a chemical attack. Experts speculate the government used sarin, a toxic nerve gas, massive exposure to which can cause instant death.
This is not the first chemical attack on the rebels since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. The deadliest one, which occurred in August 2013, killed over a thousand civilians in eastern Ghouta, near the country’s capital, Damascus. World leaders initially contemplated airstrikes to try to destroy the government's chemical arsenal. However, Assad’s close ally Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to keep military conflict at bay with a promise that the Syrian government would dispose of its chemical weapon hoard by mid-2014. A few months later the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (OPCW), which supervised the process, confirmed that 95% of the chemical weapons had been destroyed and the issue was considered resolved.
Tuesday’s attack that horrified everyone, including U.S. President Donald Trump, was the first clue that the Assad regime may not have lived up to its end of the bargain. However, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem refutes this claim and insists that the harmful gas was stored in the rebel weapon depot destroyed by a warplane. The Khan Sheikhoun activists, however, denied the allegations, saying they had no toxic chemicals. Given the Syrian government’s record, the world is inclined to believe the rebels.
The first indication that Mr. Trump was planning to take action against the Syrian government came during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. He told reporters, “It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it has already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad, has changed very much.” This statement referred to the U.S. President’s campaign promise that unlike former president Barack Obama, he would not be focused on ousting President Assad from power. Mr. Trump later added, “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that was so lethal, then that crosses many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.” He concluded: “I now have [a] responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.”
On Thursday, April 6, after a meeting with the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and members of the national security team, the President authorized an aerial military strike in Syria. At 7:40pm Eastern Mediterranean Time, Tomahawk missiles, launched from destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean, began bombarding the Shayrat air base. White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, later reported that the 59 missiles had destroyed all the desired targets, including the aircrafts, aircraft shelters, ammunition supply bunkers, and air defense systems.
As would be expected, President Trump’s decision to take this bold step is being met with mixed reactions. American allies like the U.K., France, and Germany praised the action, asserting that it was long overdue, while Russia and Iran, both strong supporters of the Syrian government, strongly denounced the attack, calling it an “aggression.”
The single U.S. strike is of course not enough to stop President Assad from his attempts to crush the six-year rebellion that has killed thousands of civilians and forced millions more to seek refuge in other countries. On Saturday, the brutal dictator showed his defiance with further military strikes in Khan Sheikhoun. The only silver lining is that they were conventional, not chemical, bombs. Hopefully, both sides will be able to resolve the volatile situation peacefully!
Resources: Washingtonpost.com, Vox.com,telegraph.co.uk,cnn.com