More than four years after a deal — negotiated by the Obama administration and the Russian government — was reached that was supposed to ensure the eradication of all chemical weapons in Syria, yet another devastating chemical attack has shocked the world.
The latest atrocity occurred in the town of Douma, the last remaining rebel bastion in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Entire families perished in their homes and underground shelters, apparently dying of suffocation as the poisonous gas cut off their air supply.
Located only a few miles from the palace of Bashar Al Assad, the fact that this town was held by rebels was a harsh thorn in the side of the brutal Syrian dictator. Indeed, if driving out his enemies was his primary purpose in committing this despicable crime, the effort was a successful one. According to the Associated Press, only hours after the attack, the Army of Islam rebel group agreed to surrender the town and evacuate its fighters to rebel-held northern Syria. The group also agreed to release its prisoners, a key government demand.
Occurring almost exactly a year after President Trump ordered the launch of several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base after a chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people, Assad was now sending a clear message of defiance to the United States and the rest of civilized society.
News of the attack drew international censure.
President Trump condemned “the heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons,” and vowed that those responsible will “pay a price.” On Monday, he indicated that he likely will be making a decision about a formal reaction by the end of the day, although as of press time none had been announced.
Not surprisingly, the Assad regime denies that any chemical attack even occurred. Moscow, its loyal patron, has leaped to its defense, with its U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, insisting that Russian experts went to the site of the attack in Douma and found no chemical substances on the ground, no dead, and no poisoned people in hospitals.
Ambassador Nebenzia also accused the United States of deliberately stoking international tensions and “unpardonably” threatening Russia. He told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that Washington is moving the world toward a “dangerous threshold.”
President Trump has vowed to respond forcefully, and he will doubtless make his final determination after hearing a range of options from his advisors. No matter how this will play out, the gravity of the situation should not be underestimated.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that this is a “defining moment” in the Trump presidency, arguing that unless President Trump follows through on his promises, “he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran.” He urged the president to “show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.”
The fact that Assad timed the latest attack so close to the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s decisive response to a previous chemical attack was, in a sense, the Syrian despot’s throwing down the gauntlet to Washington.
To use any sort of chemical weapons is a red line — and when it is crossed, it is the obligation of all of civilized society to take steps to ensure that those who commit such a dastardly deed are held accountable. In this case, the stakes are particularly high, with many unknowns.
Moscow — which has warned the United States against undertaking any military action in Syria — will be watching carefully how the White House responds. Pyongyang, which is preparing for its own historic summit with President Trump, will also likely be gauging America’s determination and willingness to draw a line in the sand.
There are no easy answers or certain solutions. We can only daven that those making the crucial decisions in the hours and days to come should be granted the wisdom to make the right choices.