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Dublin: 16 °C Thursday 22 August, 2019
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Column: Making chemical weapons a defining issue in Syria sends entirely the wrong message

If the international community is serious about helping the people of Syria, it should set about creating the conditions for a massive humanitarian intervention, which of course would mean concentrating everything that is killing people.

David Adams

IF, AS IT has been announced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Syrian government has destroyed its capacity for developing chemical weapons, then this is to be welcomed.

However, no one should kid themselves that it will make a blind bit of difference to the everyday lives of ordinary Syrian people, or to the ability of aid agencies like GOAL to access areas of need. It won’t.

There have been at least 100,000 people killed in Syria in less than three years (the true figure may be twice that) and innumerable people injured.

Entire towns, villages and heavily-populated city neighbourhoods have been levelled; more than 4.25 million people driven from their homes; and in excess of 7 million people left in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. At most, only around one per cent of the deaths in Syria have been caused by chemical weapons, and none of the destruction.

Daily bombing, and sniper and rocket fire

Millions of people did not flee their homes because they feared that chemical weapons might be unleashed upon them. Rather, they fled the daily bombing, and sniper and rocket fire they have been subjected to. Throughout the furore around chemical weapons, the levels of “conventional” violence have not diminished in the slightest.

Abhorrent as the use of chemical weapons was, to make it a defining issue in the Syrian context sent out entirely the wrong message.

For more than two years, the world stood by and did nothing about the wholesale slaughter Syria. Only when chemical weapons were used was an ultimatum issued. The unmistakable subtext was that what had gone before, and continues unchecked, was acceptable.

It is a subtext that certainly hasn’t been lost on the hundreds of Syrians that I have spoken to over the past three months. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have, in one form or another, said to me: “So this means that it’s okay for us to be bombed by Migs [fighter planes] and tanks, and to be shot down in the street, as long as they don’t use chemicals.”

The world’s apathetic attitude to Syria

Aside from the deaths, destruction and overall humanitarian catastrophe that has been created, something else has resulted from the world’s apathetic attitude to Syria. Foreign jihadist fighters have eagerly filled the vacuum, flocking to the country to pursue their own fundamentalist agendas. It matters not one jot to these people whether or not the Syrian government can produce chemical weapons.

Moreover, jihadist groups are rapidly gaining ground in Syria, constantly moving into areas that had previously been relatively safe for agencies like GOAL to operate in. Not surprisingly, the delivery of aid is becoming increasingly difficult.

If the international community is serious about helping the people of Syria, it should set about creating the conditions for a massive humanitarian intervention, which of course would mean concentrating on what is actually killing people. If this doesn’t happen, then it will prove what many of us already suspect: that the chemical weapons issue was cynically used to avoid doing much at all.

David Adams is a media officer with GOAL. He has been in Syria for the past three and a half months.

GOAL’s Syria intervention is delivering a monthly food ration and other aid to 240,000 people a month. In preparation for the winter, GOAL will soon be targeting 12,000 families with non-food items, including woollen blankets, buckets and jerry cans; and a further 5,700 families with hygiene kits. To learn more about GOAL’s work in Syria, click here. To donate to GOAL, click here.

Read: Syria has destroyed all of its chemical weapons equipment: watchdog

Read: Syrian families try to recover in neighbouring refugee camps

Read: UN warns of Syria polio outbreak after cluster of cases reported

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David Adams

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