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Syria carried out yet another chemical attack earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed Thursday. But this time, unlike with previous chemical attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces, a military response is unlikely.
“The United States will not allow these attacks to go unchallenged. Nor will we tolerate those who chose to conceal these atrocities,” Pompeo said. But when asked if that would mean a repeat of the U.S. airstrikes carried out against Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018, he suggested it wouldn’t.
“This is different in some sense in that it was chlorine, so it’s a bit of a different situation.”
In fact, the last time the Trump administration carried out strikes on Syria, it was also in retaliation for a chlorine attack — albeit one with far greater casualties. More than 40 people were killed in the chlorine attack in Douma in April 2018 that prompted the U.S., U.K., and France to launch retaliatory strikes.
By contrast, the latest chlorine attack, carried out on May 19 near the village of Kabana in Latakia province, wounded four people. Officials said the Syrian rocket attack was part of a wider assault on Idlib province, the last rebel-controlled stronghold in a war that has been raging for eight and-a-half years.
The Trump administration also carried out strikes on a Syrian air base in April 2017, after it concluded the Assad regime had used sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in an attack on a rebel stronghold that killed at least 89 people.
Pompeo said the Kabana chlorine attack was “the latest instance in a long pattern of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks that have killed or wounded thousands of Syrians.”
Syria has repeatedly used the banned weapons to make up for manpower shortages on the battlefield, and as an “instrument of terror” to instil fear in civilian populations in rebel-held areas.
Chemicals were used to most devastating effect in a sarin attack in Ghouta in April 2013 that killed hundreds, and was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere since the Iran–Iraq War. President Barack Obama, who had warned the regime that using chemicals would cross a “red line,” initially signed off on a military response, but then pulled back, striking a deal instead for Russian to destroy Syria’s extensive chemical weapons stockpile.
Under the deal, Assad was to stop using chemical weapons and surrender his arsenal by 2014. But not all of the stockpile was destroyed, and the agreement did not require the destruction of stocks of chlorine, which has legitimate civilian uses.
U.S. officials said last year they believed the Assad regime was continuing to produce and deploy chemical weapons, in the belief that it could get away with using them as long as the severity of the attacks were “under a certain level.”
While U.S. officials wouldn’t elaborate on what the response to the latest attack would be, Washington’s main retaliation so far appears to be increased support for chemical weapons monitoring and enforcement, carried out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). On Thursday, Pompeo said his administration would provide the OPCW with an additional $4.5 million for its investigations into abuses by the Syrian regime, which he said had violated the terms of the international accord on chemical weapons every year since signing it in 2013.
The U.S. government also announced economic penalties Thursday on two Russian companies for attempting to skirt U.S. sanctions to provide jet fuel to Russian forces backing Assad’s forces in Syria.
Cover: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspects a guard of honor at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 18, 2008. Al-Assad arrived Tuesday on his first visit to India. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)