White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reacted to news of the Syrian government using chemical warfare against civilians in Idlib province by blaming Barack Obama instead of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or his sponsor, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Saying the attack was “a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Spicer sought to pin responsibility for the actions of the Assad regime in 2017 on Obama’s decision to pursue chemical disarmament in Syria rather than clash with the regime through air power. “President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Spicer said.
But Sen. John McCain blamed the Trump administration for the attack, which left more than 100 dead and injured hundreds more. In an appearance on CNN today, McCain told Alisyn Camerota that “Bashar Assad and his friends, the Russians, take note of what Americans” have said in recent days about giving the murderous regime a pass.
“I’m sure they took note of what our Secretary of State said just the other day that the Syrian people would be determining their own future themselves — one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard,” McCain said. He was referring to Rex Tillerson’s press conference on Thursday in which the former Exxon Mobil CEO said that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
The policy shift was further signaled when UN Ambassador Nikki Haley indicated that regime change was no longer a priority in Syria. “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” she told reporters last week.
Though it was a slight change in tone, McCain says the regime must have seen an opening to resume using advanced chemical warfare agents against rebel-held areas. “I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking a new arrangement with the Russians,” he said. “It is another disgraceful chapter in American history and it was predictable.”
Furthermore, the nature of the weapons used strongly suggests that Russian president Vladimir Putin bears far more responsibility for the Idlib attack than any American president.
The Syrian chemical warfare program, which had been established in the 1970s through generous Russian assistance, quickly produced sarin gas munitions that were used on Homs and other cities over the following months, with the most famous target being the neighborhood of al-Ghouta, where more than 1000 people died.
Today’s situation is not at all dissimilar. After the regime’s bloody victory over rebels at Aleppo, a March counteroffensive in the suburbs of Damascus spoiled Assad’s efforts to project an image of looming victory and a return to normalcy. Using very large vehicle-borne suicide bombs and a coordinated assault with artillery, rebel groups disrupted ‘mopping up’ operations elsewhere around the capital, giving Assad his worst scare in more than four years.
Of course, the Obama administration did manage to remove known sarin production capabilities from Syria. But the reappearance of nerve agents in the Syrian conflict suggests that the regime has erected a whole new WMD infrastructure — again, with the generous help of their Russian allies. Given that witnesses to the attack in Idlib say the attack came from the air, it’s not impossible that a Russian plane conducted the attack.
Although we still don’t know exactly what chemical was used, one arms control expert who talked to me for this story noted that the symptoms seen in videos of the victims are consistent with tabun, a poison gas first developed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Less lethal than sarin, but from the same “G-series” of chemical agents, tabun has some procurement advantages that would make it an attractive option for Assad: simpler manufacture, a longer shelf-life, and no tell-tale additives like hexamine, traces of which which confirmed the gas used at Ghouta was sarin.
Still, manufacturing tabun requires a substantial industrial setting. Its original German creators used huge iron reaction kettles lined with corrosion-resistant alloy to combine phosphorous with chlorine, cooking the chemicals as they reacted. Two more chemicals were then added to the mix and the resulting liquid was filtered. Perfecting the process took them seven years, and the amount produced from each kettle was small enough that twelve of them were needed to produce the desired quantities of tabun.
But thanks to their close relationship with Moscow, the Assad regime has plenty of very good chemists. “There’s a lot of diplomas in Cyrillic script,” my source tells me. “Dozens, if not hundreds of Syrian CW people studied in the USSR, then Russia.”
Furthermore, Putin has shown little willingness to limit his material support for Damascus. It is very possible, even probable that Bashar al-Assad has built an entirely new chemical weapons program with his support.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems uninterested in doing anything about all of this except to blame their predecessors.
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