Four years ago, it almost looked as if chemical attacks on Syrian civilians would stop. “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” declared then-Secretary of State John Kerry on Meet the Press in 2014. Kerry was referring to Bashar al-Assad’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons which, under a 2013 deal struck by the Obama administration following a sarin nerve gas attack that brought the U.S. to the brink of striking Syrian government forces, were dismantled and shipped out of the country.
But there were two important and deadly loopholes. The first was that Assad did not declare everything—a reality that Kerry acknowledged publicly, including in a farewell memo to staff, in which he wrote that “unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly against the Syrian people.” The second was that chlorine gas, which has legitimate civilian uses, was not part of the deal. The Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets civil-defense group have documented 200 chemical attacks in Syria since 2012, many involving chlorine. On Saturday, the group alleged a particularly gruesome attack in the besieged city of Douma, which has reportedly killed dozens and injured hundreds. It remains unclear exactly what chemical weapon was involved in the alleged attack.