During a week that had already seen their last functioning hospital bombed out of action by an incessant hailstorm of airstrikes, barrel bombs, parachute bombs, and rockets; claiming at least 200 lives and counting; it might have been difficult for the 250,000 inhabitants of Aleppo’s besieged opposition-held eastern sector to imagine how life could get any more distressing.
Yet in the small hours of Sunday morning, residents of the Al-Sakhour neighborhood near the de facto east-west partition line found out. Waking around 1 a.m. to the sound of what they thought was a routine explosion, they walked out of their houses to discover they were in fact the targets of a chemical weapons attack.
“We went outside and started to choke on chlorine fumes,” a young man recounted to the Aleppo Media Center (AMC) news network in front of an utterly devastated building. “We thought it was a barrel bomb, but it turned out to be chlorine gas. My mother choked, and my brother’s son started to foam at the mouth.”
In all, six people were killed—an entire family comprising a couple and their four young children. According to one account, they were hiding in a bomb shelter when a helicopter dropped the chlorine-laden canisters, and were unable to escape in time. Graphic footage broadcast by the AMC showed the lifeless corpses of the girl and three boys, their faces discolored, eyes glazed, mouths wide open. “Where are the Arabs? Where are they?” an agitated man asks repeatedly as the camera films. “If the Arabs were united, Bashar wouldn’t have done this to us. But the Arab states are all traitors.”
So quickly are Aleppo’s residents being killed, and so overstretched are the city’s medical aid workers, that a spokesperson for the Syrian Civil Defense volunteer force—also known as the White Helmets—told The Daily Beast Monday he still didn’t know the names of those six victims.
“Due to the intensity of the bombardment, and the numbers of victims, we haven’t been able yet to learn their names,” said the spokesperson.
“Unfortunately, their names have not been ascertained,” concurred Aleppo-based media activist Bahaa al-Halabi to The Daily Beast.
There may have been no special reason for the regime to strike Al-Sakhour over any other neighborhood, according to Al-Halabi. “The regime hits haphazardly; wherever it notices there may be civilians, it strikes,” he said.
The district does, however, have one feature making it especially vulnerable to chemical gas warfare.
“In Al-Sakhour, the houses are small, there are ‘Arab’ houses with only one floor, so the chemicals will spread wider than in other, more built-up quarters,” Al-Halabi said.
To the suggestion that the chlorine could have been targeting rebel fighters, Al-Halabi retorted that there were none in the particular area struck.
“In the civilian neighborhoods, there are no militants. The militants are on the edges of the neighborhoods, on the battle frontlines.”
While the six deaths represented only a fraction of the more than 50 others reportedly killed Sunday in more conventional regime airstrikes, they underscored once again the international community’s continuing failure to prevent Assad’s frequent use of long-outlawed weapons of mass destruction, in spite of a much-trumpeted deal struck by Washington and Moscow in September 2013, known as the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, which did not in fact eliminate Syrian chemical weapons. Quite to the contrary, analysis conducted by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in February 2016 found the rate of chemical attacks actually accelerated after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 in September 2013, the express purpose of which was to enforce the Framework.
By the SAMS report’s count, at least 1,491 lives have been taken in 161 chemical attacks between 2012 and 2015, 77 percent of them occurring after the passage of Resolution 2118.
Even the United Nations, which has been notoriously reluctant to assign blame to any party for the ongoing chemical atrocities in Syria, took the uncharacteristic step last month in a report co-authored with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of declaring the Assad regime had carried out at least three attacks since 2014. It was even able to name the air force units responsible for the acts—those of the 63rd Helicopter Brigade’s 253 and 255 squadrons, based in Hama and Hmeimim. The OPCW media office had not responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Though grossly understating the true extent of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the UN-OPCW report nonetheless had the potential to be significant, since the text of Resolution 2118 clearly states that “in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including […] any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Security Council would “impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter,” which theoretically can range from sanctions to military action.
That was never likely to happen under the Obama administration, as National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price made clear at the time. After noting in a statement that, “The Syrian regime has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 by using industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” he went on to say Washington would “work with our international partners to enforce accountability through appropriate diplomatic mechanisms.” How much pause this prospect gave Assad can be inferred from Sunday’s events in Al-Sakhour.
Will it be any different under Trump?
Nobody knows, although Bashar al-Assad, for one, doesn’t seem to think so. Assad famously defied Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” at a time many people around the world thought it a credible pledge. Syrians may already be discovering how much more confident their dictator feels now there’s no longer even the pretense of red lines, and the incoming occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t one who thinks his predecessor didn’t do enough to stop Assad’s killing machine, but rather believes he did far too much.