Chemical weapons are again being used in Syria. Israeli newspapers, citing senior Israeli defense officials, have reported that Bashar Assad’s regime used chemical agents at least twice on March 27 in the Harsata neighborhood of Damascus. Then the rebel-controlled village of Kfar Zeita was attacked April 11 by what seems to have been chlorine gas dropped from the air. Some 150 people are reported injured. Three are dead.
Both sides in the conflict agree that chemicals were used, but as is its habit the Assad regime blames Syrian rebels. And as is the Obama Administration’s habit, it’s, well, studying the matter. “We are trying to run this down,” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “So far, it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve seen, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response.”
A year ago, the Administration was also saying it couldn’t say for sure whether the Assad regime was behind a series of small-scale chemical attacks. Then 1,000 people were gassed in Damascus. The Administration stopped denying any knowledge, then threatened the use of force, then agreed to do nothing in return for Assad’s promise to get rid of his chemical arsenal.
The latest attacks are taking place amid claims that Syria has relinquished more than half of its declared chemical stockpile and promises to hand over the rest by the end of the month. This is supposed to be a triumph of Administration diplomacy. But note the word “declared.” What the regime or elements of its military have failed to declare or turnover is another matter. In the meantime, Assad has turned the tide of war and is routing his enemies—a victory for him and his patrons in Tehran and Moscow.
All of which illustrates the perils of cutting arms-control deals with rogue regimes. They inevitably cheat, but the temptation of the West is to overlook the cheating lest it expose the arms agreement as a mistake. The Russians are supposed to lean on Assad to honor the terms, but Vladimir Putin has every incentive now to let him cheat and further bedevil the U.S. (see above). As for President Obama, his legacy may yet include an Assad triumph using chemical weapons.