Most of the world woke up Wednesday to reports of a possible chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Graphic video and firsthand accounts soon emerged that appear to support these claims with numerous victims, including several children, dead from apparent asphyxiation and showing no other injuries. While the total death toll remains unclear, if these allegations are true it will be the worst chemical weapons attack since the notorious Halabja massacre committed by the Iraqi government in 1988. The attack also comes just days after a U.N. inspector team arrived to investigate three other allegations of chemical weapons use and a year, almost to the day, after Obama surprised the White House press corps with an impromptu briefing where he proposed his now infamous "red line" on Syria.
At this point it is clear that the red line was crossed long ago. Between February 2012 and June 2013, there were at least 18 incidents where chemical weapons were said to be used. Most of these allegations are against the Syrian regime, but there are also accusations against the rebels and the various Islamist militant groups that have joined the fray. These allegations give new dimension to a conflict that is already the world's worst humanitarian disaster in 20 years.
Use of chemical weapons is strictly prohibited in conflict under the Chemical Weapons Convention and customary international law. Although several governments have experimented with developing chemical weapons, their use has been limited since World War II. Very few acts in wartime garner the same condemnation as chemical and biological weapons, and making accusations of their use is highly controversial. When the Syrian conflict started in 2011, world leaders noted their concern over the possible use of chemical weapons and repeatedly stated that such use would be unacceptable. But the allegations have come and gone with very little change to show for it.
More than two years into the conflict there has been no international intervention, and there are no indications that one will occur. There is no referral sitting before the International Criminal Court despite widespread evidence of grave crimes committed by all sides. The Western members of the U.N. Security Council continue to offer token statements and propose resolutions that are more about symbolism than action. One such resolution regarding the alleged chemical weapons attack was proposed and predictably blocked by Russia despite the fact that it did little more than condemn the attack. This is the seemingly never-ending cycle that now defines the Syrian crisis.
Some have already started calling the attack in Ghouta "Syria's Srebrenica." The 1995 Srebrenica massacre shocked the international community so much that it ultimately turned the tide of the Bosnian War, which ended less than six months later. At times there have been eerie similarities between Syria and Bosnia, particularly with regard to the international community's inertia. It is too soon to tell whether this attack can serve as the same impetus for action that Srebrenica did in 1995, but based on the U.N.'s track record so far, U.S. disengagement and Russian obstinance, such analogies are more likely the product of wishful thinking rather than insightful analysis.