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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Assad is exploiting global indifference and using chemical weapons with impunity

Use of napalm and phosphorus shows he feels he has licence to act unhindered

A Syrian family takes shelter under an empty building in Daraa, southwestern Syria, after several days of intensified bombardment by Syrian regime forces on June 23, 2018. AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED
A Syrian family takes shelter under an empty building in Daraa, southwestern Syria, after several days of intensified bombardment by Syrian regime forces on June 23, 2018. AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED

Those subjected to napalm attacks liken the ordeal to being suspended in hell.

Napalm, which consumes oxygen in the air and converts carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, can generate such intense heat that people have been known to be boiled to death when entering rivers into which it was dropped.

White phosphorous is another incendiary material that can torch people and has been described as the "new napalm".

Both substances, used to devastating effect during the Second World War, are banned by the UN from being used against civilians – yet they are being used with impunity by Bashar Al Assad in southern Syria, as he and his allies seek to wrest control of Deraa from opposition forces.

At least a dozen barrel bombs were dropped on the city over the weekend while napalm and phosphorous were used against civilians in the towns of Busr Al Harir and Musaifra.

The surrounding province is home to an estimated 750,000 people; more than 20,000 have already fled the offensive against Deraa, which sits a short distance from the border with Jordan and sections of which are part of the de-confliction agreement between the US and Russia.

The regime has sent reinforcements to Sweida, where rebel shells landed for the first time in three years; its sizeable Druze community, which has so far remained largely untouched, is suddenly exposed to war, caught up between rebels and Mr Al Assad.

Washington, which in the past reacted with limited airstrikes in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, has chosen this time to look the other way.

It has informed rebels corralled in Deraa not to “base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention” by the US.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who emphatically stated that chemical weapons constituted a “red line” did not follow up his warning with meaningful action. Is it any surprise that Mr Al Assad last week dismissed the idea of talks as an “empty waste of time”?

The draft report of a United Nations commission investigating war crimes in Syria, leaked earlier this month, details the staggering scale of chemical weapons use by the regime. “Government forces”, it says, “continued to use chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta”, a suburb of Damascus, despite denials from Damascus and Moscow and repeated warnings from the international community. The rockets used to deliver fatal nerve agents originated, according to the report, in Iran.

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has called for an end to military escalation in southern Syria.

And the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, described the operations as an unambiguous violation of the de-escalation agreement.

Yet these words can scarcely make a difference if they are not backed by action to uphold the agreement. No amount of verbal condemnation can make up for what is effectively an wholesale abandonment of Syria’s civilian population and opposition forces by the world.

The failure of the international community to mobilise against the regime has been interpreted by Mr Al Assad as a licence to repeat the savagery that has served him so well. And he is doing just that, unhindered, in Deraa.