A sarin gas attack killed dozens of civilians in Idlib province in Syria. It is believed to have been carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at least 72 people were killed, including children.
The Syrian regime denied responsibility for the attack. Russia issued a statement blaming the rebels, saying a Syrian regime airstrike hit a factory filled with poisonous mines destined for use in Iraq.
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The Trump administration said Assad and his allies Russia and Iran bore “great moral responsibility” for the massacre.
“Today’s attack is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a news briefing. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he’d establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The U.S. stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.”
Atrocities like this are the reason for the rebellion against the Assad regime which has gone on since 2011. Assad’s callous disregard for the lives of his people and his ruthless commitment to remaining in power at all costs are destroying his country.
When faced with a choice of being bombed with sarin gas by a cruel dictator, or taking up arms and fighting to remove that dictator, even if the people fighting to remove him are Islamist extremists, it is entirely understandable why people who otherwise would not support that ideology would throw their lot in with jihadi groups.
Since the beginning of the war Assad has attempted to present the West with a binary choice between him and terrorist factions. A former Syrian intelligence official said in 2014 that Assad deliberately released extremist prisoners in order to subvert the initially peaceful protests and force this binary.
As moderate groups have been gradually eroded over the long six years of war, that binary is increasingly close to being a reality. It can be tempting to think of the Assad regime as the only bulwark against a fully-fledged terrorist state.
Yet it is precisely the actions of Assad that are creating the conditions for terrorist groups to thrive in the first place. ISIS was originally al-Qaeda in Iraq and was only able to establish a base in Syria as a result of the chaos of the war, a war which started and continued because of Assad’s crimes.
If Trump is serious about tackling radical Islam, he has to make a choice.
Either he accepts the premise of the regime, namely that President Bashar al-Assad, however horrific his crimes, is the only alternative to Islamists, in which case he has to explain why children dying in a sarin gas attack is less bad than the crimes of ISIS. Or he has to take action to remove Assad from power and tackle the root cause of the rise of terrorism in Syria.
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