ON MARCH 6, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria and threatening sanctions or other enforcement action if it was used again. Ten days later, Mohamed Tennari, the medical director of a field hospital in Sarmin, Syria, in the northern province of Idlib, heard helicopters overhead, quickly followed by an alert that blared through his walkie-talkie: “Barrel bombs” filled with poison gas had been dropped on the town. Mr. Tennari rushed to the field hospital to find scores of people suffering from chlorine inhalation.
One family of six, including three children under the age of 3, were stricken when a bomb fell through a ventilation shaft in their home. “Their basement became a makeshift gas chamber,” Mr. Tennari told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The whole family died. Chlorine, testified Annie Sparrow, a pediatrician, “turns into hydrochloric acid as it is inhaled, drowning kids in the dissolution of their own lungs. I have never seen children die in a more obscene manner.”
Since March 16, there have been more than 30 chlorine attacks in Idlib province, according to the Syrian American Medical Society. More than 540 civilians have suffered from exposure, and at least 10 have died. In every case, Syrian government helicopters — no other force has such aircraft — have dropped containers filled with chlorine and sometimes other chemicals on civilian areas. There have been no such attacks by the regime against the Islamic State, or even against Syrian rebel forces — just on civilians behind the front lines.
There is no doubt that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible. “I am absolutely certain — we are certain — that the preponderance of those attacks have been carried out by the regime,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday. The State Department confirmed the attacks were chemical, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria ratified in 2013. They blatantly cross the “red line” President Obama once drew against the use of chemical weapons by Syria.
When the first attacks occurred in March, Mr. Kerry issued an angry statement declaring that “the international community cannot turn a blind eye to such barbarism.” But the Security Council, paralyzed by Russian obstructionism, has taken no action. And Mr. Kerry and his spokesman made it clear that the Obama administration has no plans to do anything other than remonstrate with Vladimir Putin’s powerless foreign minister.
It is well within the power of the United States to put a stop to the horrific attacks. It could impose a no-fly zone in northern Syria, where Idlib province lies, or simply shoot down the slow-moving Syrian helicopters carrying out the attacks. As former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford testified to the House committee, a failure to act won’t affect only Syria: “The international consensus against CW use forged after the horrors of World War I is being eroded with each new chemical attack,” he said. “This is a risk to our own soldiers’ safety and our broader national security.”
No matter: “I don’t have any specific measures here that I can lay out for you” to stop the chlorine attacks, said State Department spokesman John Kirby. Tell that to the families of the children whose lungs are being burned away.