The appalling chemical attack on the northern Syrian city of Idlib, which has killed an estimated 70 people – including children – has resulted in the United Nations having once again to wrestle with the vexed issue of how to respond to Syria’s long-running civil war. All the early indicators point to the attack having been carried out by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as part of its campaign to reconquer all the territory captured by rebel groups.
Western intelligence reports suggest that a Syrian aircraft was the only one operating in the area at the time the attack occurred, and that the chemical substance – in all likelihood a sarin-like nerve agent – was contained in a bomb dropped from the air.
The evidence so far available was certainly sufficient to cause Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, to declare that the Assad regime was directly responsible for carrying out the attack “in the full knowledge that they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people”. But, as has so often been the case in this brutal conflict, acquiring incontrovertible proof that the regime has committed war crimes is rarely straightforward or easy.
Damascus has strongly denied involvement, claiming rebel groups carried out the attack, while the Russians, who control the air space in which it occurred, reacted angrily to accusations of their own culpability, saying it was “fake information” planted by the US, Britain and France designed to discredit Moscow.
Many will question why the Russians would allow the Assad regime to carry out another chemical weapons attack, thereby attracting further international opprobrium, when they have achieved most of their war aims in Syria. But Vladimir Putin does not play by the normal rules of conflict, and the Kremlin may well see the attack as an opportunity to test the mettle of the new Trump administration in Washington which, hitherto, has indicated it might want to do business with the Kremlin’s hard man.
It is certainly true that the Idlib atrocity has forced the Trump administration into a direct confrontation with the Russians at the UN Security Council, where Russian diplomats are likely to veto any resolution that blames the Assad regime. Indeed, the whole affair could come to define the future of the Trump administration’s engagement with the Russians, one where the White House finally comes to understand the reality of trying to do business with Mr Putin.