Qatar has long stood in staunch refusal of normalising with the Assad regime until the aspirations of the Syrian people are achieved.
In the early hours of 21 August 2013, rockets loaded with deadly Sarin gas fired from military posts of Bashar Al Assad’s regime began to fall on residential areas in Ghouta, in southwestern Syria.
At least 12 rockets fell on Zamalka and Ein Tarma, releasing their toxic load and slowly descending into lower buildings. Hours later, Muadamiyat Al Sham, a neighbourhood in western Ghouta was also hit by rockets carrying Sarin gas.
Besieged and relentlessly shelled for months, the densely populated areas were already familiar with the sound and impact of conventional weapons. However, it was different this time, as death came more silently.
Within moments of the rockets’ descension, Ghouta turned into a hell on earth. Civilians began chocking and suffocate to death.
Makeshift hospitals were immediately filled with thousands of impacted civilians with symptoms of convulsions, vomiting, loss of consciousness and difficulty in breathing. Amongst the victims were many women and children, desperately repeating that they couldn’t breathe and questioning in panic: what did we do to deserve this?
Justice for the victims
On this day, we remember and honour more than 1400 martyrs of the Ghouta Chemical Attack Massacre. May God have mercy on their souls.
Our utmost duty remains to hold the perpetrators of this heinous massacre accountable and pursue justice for the victims, their families and survivors.
The international community failed the Syrian people on many occasions, but nowhere has it been so dysfunctional and ineffective as it was in its response to Ghouta chemical massacre. Though the red lines were blatantly crossed, the Assad regime was rewarded with a ‘diplomatic solution’ that only emboldened its resolve to continue killing the Syrian people through all avenues possible.
Despite the reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter in UN Security Council Resolution 2118 regarding the destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, Assad has continued to develop the chemical weapons programme and gas Syrians in total impunity.
Chemical weapons were not used once or twice but more than 300 times. Attacks targeted Kafr Zita Talmanes and Al Tamanah in 2014; Sarmin, Qmenas, Binnish, and Idlib in 2015; Aleppo in 2016; Lataminah and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017; Saraqib and Douma in 2018.
More than 1500 civilians have lost their lives due to these barbaric attacks, while over 11,000 civilians suffered from various degrees of injuries. It goes without saying that hundreds of thousands of our people living in these cities and towns have been suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder and various types of psychological effects.
“Killing with impunity” as a strategy
The massive use of chemical weapons against civilians can only be understood through the savage mentality of the Assad regime.
When Syrians courageously took to the streets to demand freedom, political reform and a government that respects and upholds human rights through peaceful protests, the response was collective punishment through sieges, barrel bombs, indiscriminate bombing and chemical attacks.
To stand against the tyranny of the Assad dynasty is the most serious crime in the eyes of the regime, stipulating over the decades that freedom-seeking Syrians in opposition-held areas should be punished in the cruellest way, to make them an example so that others do not even consider raising their voices against the dictatorship.
The implementation of this strategy requires international backing and, or – indifference. This was readily available by world powers, with Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, not only shielding its ally from every attempt of accountability at an international level, but also actively and deliberately implementing disinformation and propaganda campaigns to distract, obfuscate, and twist the facts regarding the regime’s responsibility in these attacks.
On the other hand, various mechanisms and processes under the UN, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and their joint initiatives are yet to achieve tangible results in terms of accountability.
International investigations into Syria’s chemical weapons
Months after the initial agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, questions began to arise with regards to the validity of its stockpile declaration. The Declaration Assessment Teams of the OPCW established for this purpose found no less than 20 inconsistencies, gaps and discrepancies regarding the declaration.
After 24 rounds of consultations between the regime and OPCW, the issues remained unresolved. Adding insult to the injury, the regime has been obstructing the work of the OPCW for over a year now by not issuing the necessary visas for the deployment of the declaration assessment team, and interfering in the selection of inspectors under false pretences.
Therefore, until today, the international community does not have full knowledge of Syria’s chemical weapons production and delivery capacity.
The Joint Investigation Mechanism of the UN and OPCW, and OPCW’s own identification and investigation team have separately and conclusively attributed at least eight instances of chemical weapon use to the Syrian regime and directly accused the regime of using chemical weapons against civilians.
Nearly nine years after the unanimous adoption of Resolution 2118, the lack of progress in holding the perpetrators accountable is unacceptable. The international community should continue to actively promote accountability, including supporting organisations, many of which are Syrian-led, in collecting evidence and documenting the atrocities.
In the lack of an international accountability mechanism, we welcome ongoing efforts by national courts to investigate and prosecute crimes within their jurisdiction committed in Syria, including chemical attacks.
As Syrians, we have been encouraging increased support for these prosecutions, as justice for victims and their families is long overdue.
Without justice being served, the political processes enshrined in UNSCR 2254 will not be realised, and an enduring peace in Syria cannot be achieved.
Qatar refuses normalising with Assad
The so-called normalisation process with the Assad regime should also be assessed through this lens.
Normalising with a regime that has a record of crimes against humanity, and has broken every international norm, will not bring any benefits to those seeking to achieve any form or peace or justice.
To that end, the moral and conscientious stance of states, such as the State of Qatar, towards the normalisation process is commendable.
The speech of Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani during the Jeddah Summit illustrated a clear path via “political solution in accordance with the Geneva 1 communique resolutions in order to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people”.
We hope that all true friends of the Syrian people will uphold the international human rights norms and the principle of accountability and avoid taking the path of turning a blind eye to a criminal regime.
Dr. Belal Tourkya is the Chargé d’Affairs of the Syrian Embassy in Qatar, He was appointed in 2021 as a “Minister Plenipotentiary” of the Syrian mission in Qatar in addition to his current duties, and is on the Board of Trustees at the University of Aleppo in northern Syria.