The chemical weapons deal the Obama administration helped negotiate with Syria two years ago came under withering scrutiny Wednesday as Congress aired gruesome testimony of how the Assad regime has used chlorine barrel bombs in more than two dozen recent attacks on civilians — leaving lawmakers in both parties frustrated by the president’s claim to have rid the war-torn nation of chemical munitions.
“My heart grieves for the Syrian people. I only wish that we had made some different policy choices in Washington three years ago,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who openly questioned the administration’s decision-making on Syria policy during the panel’s hearing.
Mr. Engel, who three years ago urged President Obama to arm the Syrian resistance, said the U.S. is “still trying to find our way” in Syria, and the administration’s approach has been “a disaster” that empowered the Islamic State and left Mr. Assad with the capability to kill his own people with chlorine bombs.
The White House brushed aside the criticism, saying it felt it had no choice but to allow Syria to keep chlorine as part of the chemical weapons removal deal that was quickly put together with Mr. Assad and Russian diplomats in 2013 — because chlorine has widespread nonmilitary uses such as sterilizing drinking water.
While using chlorine as a weapon is forbidden under international law, industrial chlorine used for peaceful purposes is not technically banned by any chemical weapons treaties.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest pushed back against the suggestion that administration officials had jumped the gun last year by claiming the chemical weapons removal deal with Syria was a success.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who stood at this podium or any others suggesting that every — that all chlorine should be removed from Syria,” he said. “What we’ve insisted upon is that the outrageous, catastrophic, violent behavior of the Assad regime that’s been perpetrated against the Syrian people should come to an end — and that includes the use of chlorine to try to attack people.”
As the violence in Syria mounted three years ago, President Obama initially said the use of chemical weapons would represent a “red line,” but faced wide criticism when Mr. Assad appeared to cross that line without consequences.
The world watched in horror in August 2013 when gruesome images emerged showing the horrific aftermath of a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of women and children in the opposition-controlled outskirts of Damascus.
It was then that the Obama administration and Russia suddenly brokered the agreement to allow Mr. Assad to stay in power and avoid a direct confrontation with the U.S. military as long as he relinquished his banned chemical weapons through a U.N.-backed process.
In June 2014 the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that deadly elements of Syria’s chemical arsenal such as mustard gas agents and sarin had all been successfully removed from the nation and destroyed. Secretary of State John F. Kerry also declared the effort a success, testifying before Congress at one point last year that the Obama administration had gotten “all the chemical weapons out of Syria.”
The Syrian military’s more recent shift to using chlorine barrel bombs suggests that a gaping hole was left open in the weapons removal deal — and it is prompting mounting pressure on the White House. By September 2014, Mr. Kerry and other administration officials were condemning Damascus over OPCW reports it had deployed chlorine gas in attacks on rebel villages.
“The Assad regime’s horrifying pattern of using chlorine as a chemical weapon against the Syrian people underscores the importance of investigating this allegation as quickly as possible,” Mr. Kerry said in a March statement, when another alleged chlorine attack was reported. “The Assad regime must be held accountable for such atrocious behavior.”
Syria’s government has repeatedly denied it has used either banned chemical weapons or chlorine in its civil war, but the U.N. Security Council in March adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution strongly condemning the use of toxic chemicals, including chlorine, in the Syrian conflict amid mounting evidence of continuing deadly chemical attacks.
Describing the horrors
Mr. Earnest’s comments came after a prominent Syrian doctor appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday with sobering testimony of the horrors associated with chlorine barrel bombs that have been targeting civilians in Syria.
“The majority of the attacks happen in the middle of the night or early morning,” said Dr. Mohamed Tennari, who has treated hundreds of patients for chlorine exposure at a field hospital in the opposition-controlled northern Syrian province of Idlib.
In testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee, Dr. Tennari said 31 separate chlorine attacks have been carried out in the province since mid-March, with more than 540 Syrian civilians — many of them young children and elderly — affected by exposure and 10 people dying from suffocation.
“Victims described smelling a bleachlike odor,” the doctor explained. “Patients of all ages experienced similar symptoms, consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including redness and burning of the eyes, shortness of breath, coughing and, for severe cases, frothing at the mouth.”
“When choking agents are inhaled, fluid ultimately fills the lungs and the victims suffocate.”
While the death toll is significantly lower than what would be expected from attacks by more conventional chemical weapons, such as sarin, Dr. Tennari said the chlorine attacks trigger no less fear and panic among civilians.
He voiced frustration that the international community — Washington included — had not done enough to confront the Syrian military for carrying out the attacks.
“It is an ironic and twisted fact that the government of Syria was allowed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention in October of 2013, yet since then has time and time again violated the rules of the convention by deliberately using chlorine against its own civilians, and faces no consequences,” he said. “Congress must push the administration to revisit the U.S.-Russia deal of September 2013 with the intention of adding further measures to prevent the use of weaponized chlorine and show that these flagrant and deadly violations have consequences.”
But some doubt the Obama administration will take any new action.
“I’m not sure I understand why the administration is reluctant to call it out and do something about it,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “I get that they’ve made a decision that they don’t want to get wrapped into Syria’s civil war, but dropping barrels filled with chlorine is a flagrant violation of the chemical weapons convention.
“It’s a war crime,” he said in an interview.
At the same time, however, Mr. Lewis said that the emergence of the chlorine barrel bombs “does not necessarily mean that the deal we struck with Assad was a bad one — because it did get rid of the very worst chemical weapons in Syria.”
“But it’s still a problem, and there are things we could do to retaliate,” he added. “If you knew which units were dropping chlorine barrel bombs from helicopters, well, we could target those units. … We could lob a cruise missile at an airfield that we thought a barrel bomb attack had started from.”
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, complained that the Obama administration is dragging its feet with any serious response — military or nonmilitary — to Syrian war crimes.
“Last month, the president still spoke of needing further confirmation that it was the Assad regime that is responsible for the chemical attacks,” he said. “Let’s be clear: Only Assad’s forces have helicopters.”
Mr. Royce suggested that the Pentagon should get serious about creating a no-fly zone over Syria. And, he said, the administration “should also be looking at other more immediate, nonmilitary methods that might save lives.”
“Radar systems for opposition-held areas could serve as early-warning systems. Air raid sirens could sound the alarm. And sensors could detect chemical weapons and allow first responders to be prepared as they rush to aid victims.”