With the latest US missile strikes, US President Donald Trump appears to have reset the US’ red line for military intervention in Syria over the use of chemical weapons.
What is unclear is where that red line now stands.
The US said its strikes were a response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on April 7 that US administration officials say employed chlorine and perhaps even sarin, a more deadly nerve agent.
“A large body of information indicates that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council on Saturday.
Sarin had previously appeared to be the threshold for intervention. A sarin attack triggered Trump’s decision last year to strike a Syrian air base. A sarin attack in 2013 was also what nearly brought then-US president Barack Obama to strike Syria.
Chlorine, in contrast, has been used more widely in Syria’s conflict without past US reprisals, and the chemical itself is far easier to find and weaponize, experts say.
That makes degrading it through military strikes far more difficult.
“Every city in the Middle East that has a water purification system probably has some chlorine. It is a common industrial chemical,” said Daryl Kimball at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, who favors broad action to deter use of chemical weapons, including chlorine.
As of Saturday, it was unclear whether another chlorine attack would be enough to trigger more US strikes, or whether the death toll would need to be high enough or whether — as was the case on April 7 — sarin use would also need to be a possibility.
Or perhaps there would need to be a series of violations, as was the case before April 7, prior to any US action.
The Trump administration on Saturday offered veiled threats about military action and mixed remarks about the degree to which it believed sarin was used by the Syrian government, which denies it used chemical weapons.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he was only certain about intelligence that chlorine gas was used by al-Assad’s forces on April 7 before US strikes on Syria.
He did not rule out sarin use.
US Vice President Mike Pence also said Trump carried out the strikes armed with US intelligence that at “a minimum it was the chemical weapon of chlorine,” adding that investigators still might prove sarin was used.
A different Trump administration official, briefing reporters, said the US assessed that sarin was also used in the April 7 attack, but suggested that US information on sarin came from analysis of reports from news media and other public sources of information, as opposed to US intelligence.
It was unclear whether Trump thought sarin had been used when he said on Twitter on Wednesday that US missiles “will be coming” and accused al-Assad of being a “Gas Killing Animal.”
A 2015 to last year joint inquiry of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had found the Syrian government used sarin in an April 4, last year attack and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon.
It blamed Islamic State militants for mustard gas use.
That inquiry ended in November last year after Russia, which backs al-Assad, blocked three attempts by the UN Security Council to renew its mandate.
Moscow slammed the joint UN and OPCW inquiry as flawed.
Ahead of the latest strikes, Haley on Friday told the UN Security Council that any action by Washington would not be in response to just the attack in Douma.
“The United States estimates that [al-]Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times. Public estimates are as high as 200,” she said.
On Saturday, she hinted the US would strike again if al-Assad used chlorine, but stopped short of specifying which chemical agent she was referring to.
“If the Syrian regime uses this poison gas again, the United States is locked and loaded. When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line,” Haley said.
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