'Beyond a Red Line' The World at a Crossroads in Syria
The deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime this week triggered a significant retaliation by the United States. Does this open the door for a Western intervention in the murderous conflict? By SPIEGEL Staff
On the day after 50 children, women and men died in Syria, likely from the nerve agent sarin, U.S. President Donald Trump sounded a bit like he had realized for the first time what it means to be president.
"I have to say that the world is a mess. I inherited a mess," Trump said on Wednesday during a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan. "I inherited a mess. We are going to fix it." It was almost as if he hadn't anticipated being forced to deal with problems as complicated as Syria. And perhaps he really hadn't.
Trump had just seen the most recent images of horror coming out of Syria -- in his office and on television. They showed children and adults in the small town of Khan Sheikhoun following an attack by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's air force. The victims lay twitching on the ground, some of them already dead with eyes gazing into the void.
Piles of corpses could be seen, tiny bodies piled one on top of the other, all life extinguished. They were horrific, haunting images that immediately spread around the world and many Western governments have no doubt that they are the product of a chemical weapons attack on the residents of Khan Sheikhoun by Assad.
The images apparently deeply shook the U.S. president. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal," Trump said, "that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line." It sounded as though he were already considering strikes in Syria.
Then, on Thursday night, they came. Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles, launched from two U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, pounded the Shayrat airfield near Homs, a base used by both Syrian and Russian aircraft and the site from which the planes involved in the chemical attack took off. "It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said in a statement from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
An Antagonistic Response in Moscow
While the move has received widespread support from Western leaders and Turkey, the response from Moscow has been predictably antagonistic. Though the Trump administration reportedly warned the Kremlin that the attack was imminent and no Russian planes or personnel came to harm in the strike, Moscow on Friday morning suspended a key deal aimed at minimizing the risks of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft flying sorties in Syrian airspace.
"President Putin considers the American strikes against Syria and aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law and under a far-fetched pretext," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday. "This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state."
It is an irony of history that Trump, of all people, has ordered a military strike against the Assad regime. Trump, the man who said during last year's election campaign that he intended to fight against Islamic State together with Russia and Assad and was opposed to "regime change." Trump, the man who warned his predecessor Barack Obama on Twitter at least 14 times to refrain from getting involved in Syria.
But after seeing images of the dead children of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump said: "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much." His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who last week was still saying that getting rid of Assad was no longer a priority for the U.S., held up pictures of chemical attack victims during Wednesday's emergency meeting of the Security Council. "When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," she said.
Is that the power of images? Are they so influential that they can, in the blink of a camera shutter, so dramatically change the course of a U.S. president's administration?
What happened in Khan Sheikhoun, after all, isn't totally surprising. After all, Assad's regime hasn't only murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians by way of barrel bombs, gunfire and torture. It has also repeatedly deployed chemical weapons, although it has been quite some time since such attacks were as horrific as the one that struck on Tuesday morning at 6:40 a.m. local time.
Dawn hadn't yet fully given way to day when two Su-22 jets belonging to the Syrian air force appeared in the skies above Khan Sheikhoun. Most people in town were still sleeping when four explosions -- three large ones and one smaller one -- rocked the town. One video shows two huge gray columns of dust and smoke over the city with a smaller white cloud a short distance away. It was this smaller cloud that quickly killed all the people in its surroundings.
It took valuable, deadly minutes until the residents understood that they had been attacked with chemical weapons. The first responders who showed up to the impact crater wearing gas masks were presented with an appalling sight: Some of the victims had tried to get away, having run into the street in their pajamas and suffocating there. Others lay lifeless at the doors to their homes. Some died in the few bomb shelters in the area.
The survivors struggled to breathe, their pupils narrowed and they were hardly able to see. They were the same symptoms seen following a chemical attack on several towns near Damascus in August 2013. Ground samples following those strikes showed that the nerve agent sarin had been deployed.
"Dozens upon dozens of unconscious, gasping patients arrived here, they were foaming at the mouth. Children, men, women, elderly. They died in front of our eyes, without visible injuries and we initially didn't know what to do," says Fadi Othman, one of the medics. "We handled the first 50 patients with our bare hands."
Five nurses and a doctor soon began experiencing the same symptoms as the victims. "It was only then that we put on disposable gloves," Othman continues. "Then we washed the patients with water and ordered them to undress and leave their contaminated clothing outside."
Soon, he said in a telephone interview, the entire courtyard in front of the entrance was full of the injured and the dying. "There were 400 or 500 people. We then asked the ambulances to take patients somewhere else. Inside, we have room for 50 patients at most and our underground hospital quickly filled with poisonous fumes from the clothes and skin of the patients."
The symptoms of a sarin attack can be treated with atropine, which blocks the poison's deadly effects on the nervous system. But atropine is difficult to find in the rebel-held areas of Syria, not least because in the days prior to the chemical attack, all important hospitals in Khan Sheikhoun and neighboring cities in the Idlib and Hama provinces were heavily damaged or destroyed by air strikes.
'Dying in Our Hands'
"The victims are simply dying in our hands," said a desperate medic in Khan Sheikhoun on the day of the attack. "We don't have enough atropine and the only way to save them is to transport them to Turkey. But many can't make it that far." At least 86 people had died by Thursday evening.
As if the chemical weapons attack wasn't bad enough, the clinic in Khan Sheikhoun was bombed as well, starting at midday on Tuesday. Because the hospital is underground, it was safe from most of the bombs and rockets, but not from the heavy bunker-buster bombs that have been repeatedly deployed by the Russian air force in recent months, most of them dropped by Su-34 bombers, which Assad's military does not possess.
According to eyewitnesses, two such Su-34s flew an attack at midday on Tuesday against the hospital in Khan Sheikhoun and on the neighboring civil defense headquarters. "We were in the operating room. I have never experienced such a massive attack," says Mohammed Diab, one of the doctors who was on duty at the time. Many pieces of equipment were destroyed, he says, and the medical staff had to dig their way out of the hospital.
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Diab is concerned that the destruction of the clinic is just the first step in a larger plan. "First, all treatment facilities in the provinces of Idlib and Hama are going to be destroyed. Then, civilians will be attacked in their villages so that the fighters, who are from here, will have to focus on saving their families and will pull out.
That could be the strategy the regime is pursuing to take control of the two provinces, both of which are rebel strongholds. The fact that Assad has again used chemical weapons is likely intended as a chilling message to his people -- with the goal, perhaps, of getting as many people to flee as possible.
- Part 1: The World at a Crossroads in Syria
- Part 2: A Helping Hand in Moscow