The world has rightly been shocked at the appalling chemical attack on the Syrian town of Douma, by President Assad’s forces. How could the international community not be horrified by the images of crying children being desperately hosed down following exposure to deadly chemical agents? And how could the senseless and cruel deaths of at least 70 people not be the cause of widespread outrage?
But the truth is that Douma is not a first. In fact, it is not even the second or the third time that Assad has massacred his own people via chemical weapons. From more than 80 deaths at Khan Sheikhoun last year, all the way back to 2013, when the international community appeared poised for action. Importantly, the United Nations has conclusively pinned the blame on the Syrian government for four such atrocities. The chemical-laden barrel bomb has become an Assad trademark.
And yet, despite this terrible litany of chemical attacks, Western governments have balked at the idea of meaningful intervention. The debate on potential military action is fraught with memories of the Iraq War and the spectre of Russian involvement. However, nobody appears to have weighed other potential measures – For example, action against those complicit in Assad’s chemical crimes. Namely Iran, which itself has experienced first-hand the horror of chemical warfare during the 1980s war against Iraq.
Iran’s deep involvement in Syria is virtually undisputed. It is not a question of peripheral support, but a deep military partnership alongside Assad. Reuters estimates that more than 1,000 Iranian soldiers have been killed during Syria’s Civil War. And both Fox News and New York Times have recently noted an increasing number of Iranian military bases in Syria. Iran itself admitted that seven of its soldiers were killed in this week’s air strike on the T-4 Airbase near the Syrian town of Palmyra.
In other words, Iran is not hiding the fact that at the very least, it is fighting hand in glove with the Assad forces who carried out the Douma massacre. We will likely never know whether the Iranian military echelon approved or had prior knowledge of the horror which unfolded in Douma. However, intelligence reports last year said that Syria was continuing to develop chemical weapons, with Iran’s full knowledge. And back in 2005, Jane’s Defence Weekly went as far as to report that Iran was working with Syria to build an “innovative chemical warfare programme.”
So if Iran itself admits to a military partnership with the Douma perpetrators, why is the rest of the world seemingly so reluctant to tell it how it is? Credit to US President Trump, who bucked the trend and made clear that Iran bears responsibility for the Douma atrocity by backing Assad. Perhaps other world leaders do fully understand Iran’s complicity, but are wary to express it publicly. Yet at some point, surely involvement in such horror must have consequences? After all, without the support of outside forces such as Tehran, Assad would not be in a position of strength to even countenance the use of chemical weapons.
Iran is acting with impunity throughout the Middle East, fuelling unrest and conflict in Yemen and elsewhere. But Syria is perhaps the starkest example of Iran’s lust for power at seemingly any price – Even the painful death of innocent civilians at the mercy of chemical weaponry. Until Tehran is held to account, Assad and others like him will be handed a licence to continue.