U.S. officials on Thursday charged that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has manufactured and deployed new chemical weapons in stark violation of a 2013 agreement, supposedly overseen by Russia, that would eliminate the entire Syrian inventory of weapons of mass destruction.
According to these officials, the Assad regime kept some of its chemical weapons despite copious assurances to the contrary by Russia and the Obama administration. Obama and his top officials spent years boasting they had removed “one hundred percent” of the chemical weapons from Syria, as then-Secretary of State John Kerry claimed, without resorting to military action.
Of course, the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime long ago made a mockery of these claims. A joint investigative mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that Syria used chemical weapons in 2014, 2015, and 2017, prompting Russia to use its U.N. Security Council veto to halt the investigation.
Trump administration officials were more specific on Thursday about how Assad was able to preserve part of his stockpile and develop more “evolved” methods of deploying them against citizens in smaller, more precisely targeted amounts. One example provided at the briefing was using ground-launched munitions to disperse sophisticated chemical mixtures, rather than loading WMD into the indiscriminate mass-casualty “barrel bombs” previously favored by the Syrian regime.
“They think they can get away with it if they keep it under a certain level,” one official explained.
Concerns were expressed that Assad would continue making these smaller “instrument of terror” strikes against stubborn rebel enclaves. Russian and Iranian assistance appears to have secured Assad in power after years of bloody civil war, but he has been unable to crush the last few pockets of resistance, and they are currently seeking to engage the Syrian government in U.N.-sponsored peace talks, which could yet pose a threat to Assad’s power. Russia’s attempt to hijack this process and arrange negotiations more favorable to the Syrian regime ended in disaster earlier this week.
The officials said that evidence from recent chemical attacks suggests Assad illegally retained a “continued production capacity” for weapons of mass destruction, and is continuing to produce agents he has deployed in the past, such as chlorine and sarin. They said there was no indication of research into new weapons, which is fortunate because even deadlier chemical mixtures exist.
The U.S. officials also worried that Syria’s chemical weapons, and the knowledge of how to use small amounts to carry out effective terror attacks, could spread beyond Syria’s borders and threaten the United States. This is especially troubling because the new tactics developed by the Assad regime make it more difficult to trace the origin of chemical attacks.
For this reason, they said the United States “reserves the right to use military force,” although the administration believes international sanctions and diplomatic pressure may yet prove effective.
The press briefing was held anonymously by officials who said they were not authorized to speak on the record. On Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the United States was investigating reports of the Assad regime using sarin gas and accused it of repeatedly using chlorine.
A new chlorine gas attack against the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta was reported on Thursday, the third such attack in three weeks. Over 20 civilians, some of them children, were hospitalized with breathing difficulties following a missile strike by regime forces. British-based weapons analyst Elliot Higgins noted the lot number stamped on a recovered missile fragment suggested the weapons came from the same batch used in a suspected chlorine gas attack on the same area on January 22.
“Today Douma woke up breathing chlorine in the western neighborhoods. Only the sun can protect us. The international community has abandoned us,” said a local nurse.