There are claims that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta, killing up to 70 people. There had been chemical attacks in different areas in Syria in the past that were confirmed by independent observers. In some cases, the victims who were exposed to chemical agents were brought to hospitals in Turkey, and the medical staff confirmed the use of these banned weapons in many cases.
Massacring civilian populations during conflicts is always a war crime, regardless of the kind of weapon used to kill the people. If such a massacre happened in Eastern Ghouta, no one could pretend civilians were legitimate targets under international law. Although the Syrian government presents these people as terrorists and rebels for the international community, nothing can justify an attack on civilians.
We know that the government in Damascus and its allies consider their military actions to be a fight against terrorism. We also know there is no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism, and every state has its own definition to qualify an act a terrorist act and those responsible for it as terrorists. However, the international community does not see Syrian rebels as terrorists, no matter what Bashar Assad keeps calling them.
According to international law, which bans the use of chemical weapons in all conflicts, killing people in Eastern Ghouta with chemical agents would be a crime, even if those people were considered terrorists. According to a number of news reports, children were among the victims, so no one would believe they were terrorists, anyway. Killing innocent people in such a dreadful way should be investigated in the light of international criminal law, taking into account the international definition of genocide.
It is not easy to prove that the Syrian regime did in fact use chemical weapons to kill its opponents. But if it did, it is definitely one of its biggest mistakes. It is not only a crime under international law, it is also a political mistake. We remember that Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing scores of people in Halabja in 1988, but the international community did not attack him because of his genocidal campaign of repression. The great powers decided to move only when he invaded oil-rich Kuwait. However, once he was overthrown and brought to justice, the tribunal also judged him because of this massacre. In other words, even though Halabja did not suffice for the international community to force Saddam out, and the world waited for him to commit a bigger mistake, the international community did not forget it, either. That means Assad may still have time, but he cannot get away with his crimes forever.
The Assad regime still has time because Russia decided so. Moscow vehemently denies the reports on chemical weapons use in Eastern Ghouta. Therefore, it appears they still believe Assad is useful for Russia, and they do not want him to face trial right away. By the way, if the use of chemical weapons is proven, Russia probably has an idea about where the Syrian military gets them.
Saddam had been accused of producing his own chemical weapons. However, when the coalition occupied Iraq, they could not find any evidence of chemical weapon production. As the Saddam regime was destroyed in the meantime, no one could ask them who provided chemical weapons to the Iraqi military, as Iraq did not produce them itself.
If chemical agents have indeed been used in Syria, there are two options – either the regime produced them or it got them from someone else. In both cases, powers like Iran or Russia that are backing the Assad regime have their part of responsibility, one way or another. This tragic event may provide the legal basis to blame not only Assad, but also its accomplices. In brief, Assad is getting Iran and Russia into big trouble.