The White House yesterday fell short of describing Syrian President Bashar Assad's chlorine bombs as chemical attacks for lack of indisputable evidence, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's conviction that the attacks had been carried out by the regime.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that chlorine is also an industrial chemical that has legitimate purposes and no one from the U.S. President Barack Obama's administration said that all chlorine should be removed from Syria. "What we've insisted upon is that the outrageous, catastrophic, violent behavior of the Assad regime that's been perpetrated against the Syrian people should come to an end. And that includes the use of chlorine to try to attack people," he added.
Kerry told journalists on Tuesday that he is absolutely certain that the preponderance of chlorine attacks have been carried out by the regime. "We are putting together a portfolio of data that supports that even as we speak now," he said in a videoconference to journalists at the State Department.
Yet this statement did not convince the White House that the redline on chemical weapons has been crossed. Earnest reiterated the White House's stance regarding a redline drawn by Obama on chemical attacks in Syria and said that "the redline is absolutely still in place."
Mohammed Tennari, the medical director of a field hospital in Idlib who testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, said that since March 16, his organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), had documented 31 chlorine attacks in Idlib with over 580 Syrians affected by exposure, leading to 10 deaths from suffocation.
Tennari believes that every chlorine attack that has occurred in Idlib since last March so far has been by Syrian government helicopters dropping chlorine-filled barrel bombs on civilian areas. "Our number-one need is international protection from these aerial attacks, with a no-fly zone if necessary," he told the committee.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed last September that chlorine gas was used "systematically and repeatedly" in Syria. The OPCW has begun another fact-finding investigation to look into these recent attacks in Idlib, to find the perpetrators and clarify whether the Syrian regime has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2209, passed last March, condemned the 2014 attacks and warned the Syrian government that this was the first documented instance of the use of toxic chemicals as weapons within the territory of a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.N. Security Council then decided that in the event of future noncompliance, it will impose measures against the Assad regime, including military action. This is why the verification of the recent allegations in Idlib could have grave implications for the Assad regime.