The horrifying Syrian gas attack that killed more than 100 people is compelling U.S. President Donald Trump to finally make up his mind about Russia. The global uproar against Russia and the Assad regime intensified on Wednesday, with world leaders, including Trump, condemning the apparent chemical attack in Idlib province on Tuesday that killed more than 100 people, including more than 20 children.
Videos containing graphic images, allegedly recorded in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, have surfaced showing the aftermath of the horrifying attack, which is one of the deadliest attacks since the Syrian war began six years ago.
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEO
While chemical weapons experts and international leaders point the finger of blame at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian government has sharply debated multiple accounts by international experts, witnesses and survivors of the deadly attack. Several witnesses also reported a second airstrike targeting a clinic that was treating victims of the deadly attack.
Trump condemned the horrifying sarin gas attack, calling it an “affront to humanity” and adding that the “heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.” However, many criticized the U.S. President, who has yet to outline his policy on Syria, for offering no concrete response.
Russia, meanwhile, is suspected of covering up Assad’s poison gas use. Russia has offered a completely different explanation of the deadly events in Syria, which a chemical weapons expert cited by CNN called “highly implausible.” While the international community has yet to investigate Russia’s claims on the apparent chemical attack, one thing is clear: there’s a huge gap between how the U.S. and Russia see events in Syria.
Syria now in the hands of Russia and Trump
Trump said on Wednesday that the gas attack which killed more than 100 people has changed his views on Syria and Assad. He has yet to come up with a plan to reduce tensions in Syria, as clearly, the 2013 deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia calling for no use of chemical weapons has had little to no effect on the Assad regime, which is also blamed for previous chemicals attacks in the war-torn country.
While the regime has apparently not destroyed or shipped out all of its chemical weapons – which was one of Assad’s pledges in the 2013 deal – a ceasefire brokered by Russia with Turkey and Iran hasn’t reduced tensions in Syria. The international community has failed to act against the gruesome war crimes in Syria, as Russia and China routinely veto resolutions that punish the Assad regime. Now the U.S. and its new President are being pressured to put more effort into finally ending the civil war in Syria.
This was one of the implications during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, where U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley showed graphic images from the horrifying chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. She also hinted that if the UN fails to take action against the Assad regime, the U.S. might do so singlehandedly.
But there are already early indications that the Security Council could face opposition from two key permanent members – Russia and China – as Russia has strongly denied the use of chemical weapons in the deadly gas attack. In February, the Security Council failed to condemn another attack by forces loyal to the Syrian government, as the resolution was vetoed by China and Russia.
Holes in Russia’s account of the Syrian chemical attack
While many international experts fear that Trump does not have an immediate plan of action for handling the chemical attack and Russia’s opposition, the recent developments in the Syrian crisis put U.S.-Russia relations to test.
While many argue that Trump has a soft spot for Russia, the gas attack could finally either confirm or dismiss those beliefs. Trump said that the deadly Khan Sheikhoun attack “crossed many, many red lines” but hasn’t reacted to Russia’s account of it – something that many critics interpreted as a worrying sign.
Russia, which is going through tough times of its own after Monday’s metro bombing attack sent shock waves across the country, claims the airstrike hit weapons-storage facilities which are currently under the control of Syrian rebels. Describing those facilities as “terrorist warehouses,” Russian officials said insurgents were making “projectiles stuffed with chemical agents” to send to fighters in Iraq.
However, several international weapons experts who believe chemical weapons killed more than 100 people in Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday say it’s much more plausible that the Assad regime, which was blamed for using nerve agents in the past, is using them again.
There seem to be multiple holes in Russia’s accounts on the deadly Syrian attack. There is no immediate evidence proving that any chemical weapons facility ever existed near Khan Sheikhoun. And even if such a facility were hit, the resulting explosion would most likely burn up the chemicals.
In addition to that, many chemical weapons experts noted that nerve agents such as sarin, which is believed to be responsible for the symptoms in the victims of the attack, are normally never stored in chemical weapons facilities in their active forms. In order to be lethal, a nerve agent and its components need to be mixed.
Can the U.S. and Russia work together to resolve the Syrian crisis?
The Trump administration, which has so far given contradicting views on how it will handle the Syrian conflict, is now put under an incredible amount of pressure. While Trump has previously indicated that his focus is to eradicate terrorism and radicalism, there’s no telling what actions he might take to respond to the apparent chemical attack by the Assad regime.
And if that response – if any – will be firm, is Trump willing to sacrifice U.S.-Russia relations to reduce tensions in Syria? He has focused much of his Syria talk on lambasting his predecessor Barack Obama, who has been criticized for failing to punish the Assad regime for its apparent use of chemical weapons and other war crimes, but this time, he has finally acknowledged that “the responsibility is now mine.”
The Obama administration repeatedly called for the removal of the Assad regime, but the Trump administration has not voiced such demands – something that many interpreted as Trump’s interest in alternative solutions to the crisis by appeasing Russia in the process.
The way Trump is going to handle the Syrian conflict after the apparent chemical attack could finally shed light not only on his Syria policy, but also his plans for Russia. The deadly attack can also show if the two nations – which have had irreconcilable differences over the past decades – can finally compromise and seek solutions to international problems now that Trump is President.