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Time to end Assad’s WMD

A new mass chemical weapons attack in Syria seems to have been launched against civilians on Tuesday morning, according to initial reports from medical workers and first-responders. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the regime’s sarin gas attack in Damascus in 2013, video and pictures emerged following the attack of the lifeless bodies of children, still in their pajamas, who had suffocated to death.

Nerve agents are among the deadliest weapons of mass destruction (WMD) invented by man. In 2013, the regime fired short-range missiles into rebel-held neighborhoods of Damascus, slaughtering nearly 2,000 civilians. Many died almost immediately from the horrific effects of the nerve gas, which attacks the body’s respiratory and neurological systems.

Back then, photos of hundreds of children, who were asleep at the time of the attack, filled international media. The US and the international community considered a punitive strike against regime forces in retaliation for the horrific slaughter, and for the wanton violation of then-President Barack Obama’s warning that such an attack would constitute a “red line.”

The regime narrowly avoided military repercussions due to a deal brokered by the US and Russia, and enforced by the UN, under which the regime would give up its remaining chemical weapons stockpile.

The harrowing images coming out today from the northern Syrian village of Khan Shaykoun make it abundantly clear that the regime, as many had suspected, had kept an undeclared stockpile of chemical weapon precursors and related production material. This is but the latest in a long string of such attacks that the regime has conducted with impunity since that chemical weapons deal was signed in 2013.

President Bashar Assad’s reasoning for continuing to use chemical weapons against Syrian children is simple: He does not expect any repercussions for pursuing a policy of genocide. The latest attack is testimony to the repercussions of the Obama administration’s blank check it gave to Assad once it became clear the “red line” was just hollow rhetoric.

The only way to prevent another sarin attack is for the regime to face serious military repercussions. This could constitute more military aid to vetted opposition groups. Airstrikes against air bases associated with chemical weapons and suspected storage facilities could be launched without a UNSC resolution.

Oubai Shahbandar

Investigators and international inspectors had ample evidence by 2015, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, that the regime maintained hidden stockpiles of missiles and bombs that could be armed with sarin and VX, and kept a significant amount of the precursor chemicals and production facilities needed to produce more of these WMD.

The chemical genocide in Syria is a product of the cover Russia affords the regime. Just this February, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that would have imposed sanctions against parties using chemical weapons in Syria. Moscow and Beijing will not hesitate to veto any effort to bring this latest atrocity to the UNSC for action. Iran- and regime-backed media are already trying to obfuscate responsibility for the attack.

The only way to prevent another sarin attack is for the regime to face serious military repercussions. This could constitute more military aid to vetted opposition groups. Airstrikes against air bases associated with chemical weapons and suspected storage facilities could be launched without a UNSC resolution.

Militarily, this response is feasible. The regime’s air defense system is a shell of what it once was, judging by the number of successful Israeli airstrikes in recent months. Diplomatically, the US, Turkey and the Arab Coalition could send a united message to Russia and Iran that continued use of sarin is beyond the pale and endangers the prospects for any peace deal or a unified effort against Daesh.

Assad’s chemical weapons must be eradicated. He will not give them up voluntarily, and will likely use them again. He is banking on the world becoming numb to the images of Syrian children gassed to death, foam seeping from their mouths. This time, the rallying cry “never again” against genocide should mean just that.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.