Ghouta chemical attack: Two years onward

Without collective international action, peace in Syria could still be a long way off.

Syria alleged chemical attack
The world was outraged, but not enough to take any military action, writes de Bretton-Gordon [AFP]

On August 21, 2013 the world woke up to the worst chemical attack since the Halabja massacre of March 16, 1988.

Some estimates suggest that up to 1,000kg of the deadly nerve agent sarin had been dropped on the rebel held suburbs of Ghouta, near the Damascus heartland of Assad, killing upwards of 1,000 mainly women and children.

UN experts examine alleged chemical attack site

The world was outraged, but not enough to take any military action to alleviate the suffering of millions of innocent civilians.

This was worryingly familiar to the global inertia after the attack at Halabja in 1988, where 5,000 people were killed on the day by sarin and mustard gas, and up to 12,000 dead subsequently.

At Halabja, the leaders of the international community collectively “sat on their hands” and two Gulf wars later and many thousands of dead, Saddam Hussein was eventually ousted in a chaotic and unplanned manner, which is also where the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has some of the roots of its development today.

Feeling of abandonment

The majority of Syrians I have met in Syria, and out of Syria since the Ghouta attack feel abandoned by the international community, and see the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as an equal evil to ISIL, and worse in some cases.

In some areas of Syria, this helplessness has fuelled support for ISIL, who are at least providing them with food and water, albeit under a brutal and inhumane regime.

The UNSC members must have detailed and workable plan for post-Assad Syria to transition back to normality, unlike the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.


The morbidly brilliant psychological warfare being waged by ISIL against all those who oppose them, undoubtedly, has its doctrine shaped by the inaction to oust Assad as much as tribal and religious derisions.

The statistics for the Syrian civil war make shocking reading for all: the conflict claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and displaced 7.5 million. And 1.5 million are seeking solace and shelter in the UK and Europe.

And those remained in Syria have little food, electricity or water. Some 70 percent of the country is “razed to the ground” and the only way I can describe Syria to my former military colleagues is to think of Basra in 2007-2009 or Helmand province around the same time and multiply the hopelessness and awfulness by about 10 times, and you get Syria today.

This is a country that sits on the edge of Europe.

Some action but not enough

Is there any hope in this apparently insurmountable dreadfulness since Ghouta and a way to look forward?

After the Ghouta attack, despite the international community’s reluctance on military action against the Assad regime, we have seen some positive action.

The United Nations Security Council did get Assad to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Syrian leader then agreed the removal of chemical weapons from his country by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). By the second half of 2014 this objective was largely achieved.

However, the recent suspected mustard gas attacks by ISIL in Iraq against the Kurdish Peshmerga, and reports on Assad still possessing some deadly nerve agent VX, suggest this operation was not as comprehensive as once thought.

Since April 14, Assad has reportedly used the original chemical weapon, the comparatively harmless chlorine – a commonly available toxic industrial chemical – to terrorise the remaining civilian population, and ISIL have also reportedly copied the use of this cynically frightening weapon against Coalition forces in Iraq.

RELATED: It’s time for a No Fly Zone in Syria

The second positive is the initiative by Turkey with US support to set up “safe-zones” in northern Syria, free from Assad, ISIL and other terror groups.

This should at last stem the huge outrush from Syria, with NGOs able to get all types of aid to these people.

Virtually every Syrian I have spoken to who has left Syria would prefer to return, if there were the prospect of safety and some sort of return to normality.

Some initiatives such as Syria Relief and International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) are medical charities – with 52 hospitals and clinics across Syria – provide help for those who remain in the country.

Mainly run by Syrian immigrants with the support of consultants from the UK’s National Health Service, Syria Relief manage to get aid to the hospitals through Syrian networks. It is a proper type of organisation run by Syrians for Syrians.

This must be a template to be enhanced and supported by the international community if we are going to begin to alleviate suffering of those who remain and encourage those back who have left.

“Safe-zones” could help spread this way of working compared to other types of aid and charities.

I would like to see these “safe-zones” extended as the situation allows and a blanket “no-fly zone” applied over Syria, to prevent at least the indiscriminate barrel bombs, and some chemicals that still kill hundreds of civilians a week.

The way forward

The last positive move is the UNSC resolution to investigate and determine the perpetrators of the chemical attacks in Syria.

It means that over the past two years, this is the first time the Russians have not vetoed a UNSC resolution dealing with Syria.

As the closest ally of Syria, Russians undoubtedly have the key say in Assad’s future and Russia’s support for this resolution could very well signify the beginning of his end and hopefully a brighter future for Syrians.

However, the UNSC members must have detailed and workable plan for post-Assad Syria to transition back to normality, unlike the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.


Can the international community rely on Russian support to stabilise and rebuild Syria? And what does the support or ambivalence of Iran, Israel and other regional players mean in this equation?

Without these, some sort of peace could still be a long way off.

We collectively must provide a place for the five million Syrian refugees to return to; and enough financial, physical and moral support to give a realistic chance of a viable Syrian nation in future.

So two years on, from probably the single most horrific event, in this most horrific of conflicts, there are at least a few green shoots for a more positive future.

The international community must develop the “safe” and “no-fly zone” concept, ensure that those responsible for the atrocities of the last four years are documented for their day in the International Criminal Court.

Finally, for the millions of innocent Syrians who have suffered, we should put enough resources, thought and planning to give a realistic chance to develop a livable and viable Syria sometime on the not too distant horizon.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.