LONDON – Last week, US President Donald Trump authorized a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from which a chemical attack was launched by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That strike marked a significant departure from former President Barack Obama’s widely discredited policy toward Syria – one that could change the Syrian conflict’s rules of engagement, if not its course.
The use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in the Middle East is far from a new phenomenon, and Arab socialist and Baathist regimes – with their ideological kinship to Nazism and fascism – have been the most common perpetrators. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian forces regularly used chemical weapons against Yemeni loyalist guerrillas and civilian villagers from 1963 to 1967. Saddam Hussein’s forces also used them regularly, against Iranians, Iraqi Kurds, and Iraq’s Shia majority, from 1983 to 1991.
But the Assad regime has outdone them all, conducting perhaps the most lethal, intense, and large-scale chemical-weapons campaign in the Middle East. Since late 2012, there have been some 64 alleged attacks, employing various toxic chemicals, ranging from chlorine to sarin gas. The latest attack, which killed more than 85 civilians and injured over 550, was part of this ongoing campaign.
In the Middle East’s six-decade-long history of state-directed chemical mass murder, one power has consistently protected the perpetrators: Russia. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union stifled condemnations of Nasser’s attacks on the Yemenis, leading then-United Nations Secretary-General U Thant to declare that he was powerless to deal with the matter.