Horrific sarin attack only part of the Syrian people's suffering

'You have to watch, you have to bear witness'
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Story highlights

  • Kenneth Roth: Trump's one-day emotional response to horrors of a particular chemical attack in Syria is not enough
  • He says the US needs a coherent policy to end the Syrian people's suffering

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter: @KenRoth. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)How do we make sense of President Donald Trump's military response to the April 4 sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which evidence shows was launched by Syrian government forces?

Kenneth Roth
Was Trump simply demonstrating that he is not President Barack Obama, responding militarily to the chemical weapon "red line" that Obama chose instead to enforce through the negotiated removal of what President Bashar al-Assad claimed were all of his chemical weapons? Or was Trump showing that even he has limits to the atrocities he will tolerate?
Russia claims that the April 4 attack was a Syrian conventional bomb that happened to hit a "terrorist" chemical weapons cache on the ground. That cover story was quickly undercut by the fact that Khan Sheikhoun residents began suffering symptoms from a sarin attack five hours before Russia said the conventional attack took place.
    Then, last week, Human Rights Watch decimated the cover story. Dozens of local residents interviewed said that a crater in the middle of a paved road appeared to have been the epicenter of the chemical exposure and that there were no indications that other sites attacked that morning contained any stored chemicals.
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    Two remnants found in a crater in the paved road have characteristics that are similar to a Soviet-produced, air-dropped chemical bomb designed to deliver sarin, suggesting that the weapon used was factory-produced.
    And it turns out, the April 4 attack was not the Syrian military's only recent use of nerve agents. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch how bombs containing nerve agents were also dropped on March 30 southwest of Khan Sheikhoun and on December 11 and 12 on two villages in territory controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS.
    It would be laughable to suggest that at four different times in four different locations Syrian bombers just happened to hit hidden caches of nerve agents -- all the more so since there is no firm evidence that anti-government fighters even possess them.
    The Syrian government has been responsible for a devastating range of atrocities. In addition to nerve agents, it has deployed chlorine as a chemical weapon against civilians so extensively that these attacks may amount to a crime against humanity. But beyond chemical weapons, the Assad government has been responsible for conventional attacks that have killed vastly more Syrian civilians than its use of chemicals.
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    While chemical deaths number in the hundreds, deaths from conventional weapons are in the hundreds of thousands.
    Supported on the ground by Iran and Hezbollah and from the air by Russia, the Syrian military has pummeled civilians and civilian institutions with conventional weapons, including heavy artillery, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and the notorious helicopter-dropped "barrel bombs."
    It has subjected hundreds of thousands of civilians to the severe deprivation of unlawful sieges. And its prisons have imposed ruthless conditions, pervasive torture and widespread death on thousands more.
    Yet these atrocities have barely registered in the Trump administration's rhetoric. Millions of Syrians have fled these atrocities, seeking safety and security abroad. But Trump has suggested that despite extensive vetting they are too dangerous to come to the United States and has sought to ban the lucky few who were selected for resettlement.
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    Meanwhile, US foreign policy has flouted human rights norms. As Trump removed "human rights" from the name of the White House office that had promoted them, his secretary of state said he would relegate human rights to "values," distinguishing them from the policies that will guide US relations and prioritize economic and security interests.
    In addition, Trump held official meetings with autocrats like Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping without any public criticism of their egregious rights records.
    It may well be that Trump was moved to respond to the Khan Sheikhoun attack after seeing images of the victims. But without a strategy to protect civilians in Syria his one-off response will do little to meet their urgent need.
    A serious Syria policy would center on the need to protect civilians from all forms of attack. It would rally other nations to talk regularly about the Syrian government's extensive war crimes, press for accountability and impose intense pressure to end them on Russia, whose military support the Assad government needs to survive.
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    Trump has cooled his early infatuation with Vladimir Putin, but has put only limited public pressure on Putin to rein in Assad's atrocities, other than a seemingly summary declaration that Assad must go. Shamefully, although the US under Obama voted to create a new accountability mechanism for Syria through the UN General Assembly, Trump has yet to contribute any funds, according to UN officials.
    Instead, US policy remains fixated on defeating ISIS -- an important initiative, but far from the main cause of Syrian deaths or suffering. The Trump administration has toyed with the idea of "safe" zones for Syrian civilians but has offered no concrete plan for who would actually keep them safe. For all practical purposes, Trump continues to leave the Syrian people in the lurch.
    No one pretends that solving Syria is easy. But, so far, Trump has offered no coherent policy, just a one-day emotional response to the horrors of a particular chemical attack. That barely makes a dent in the Syrian people's suffering.