Three years ago today international news was overwhelmed with images scarcely matched in human memory: men, women and children foaming at the mouth; onlookers screaming in agony, helpless as they watched loved ones suffocate to death; rows of shrouded bodies showing no external injuries but gone forever nonetheless. The bloodless murder indicated what was later proven: the Assad regime had launched missiles containing the deadly nerve agent Sarin on Ghouta, a residential suburb of Damascus.
As a father of four children and leader of the most representative body of the Syrian opposition, these images still haunt me as a vivid reminder of what we owe victims of this and every chemical and indiscriminate attack: accountability and deterrence.
The UN Security Council vowed to destroy Assad's chemical weapons and take urgent action if they were used again. Three years on, the international community has consistently failed to fulfil its responsibilities towards Syrian civilians. The Assad regime continues to unleash chemical weapons and other banned weapons on civilians with impunity. This cannot go on. It is high time the Assad regime understands that there are consequences for such war crimes.
The 2013 Sarin attack on Ghouta is a stain on the international community. So is every indiscriminate attack on civilians perpetrated before and since. More than 300,000 Syrians have died in the conflict since the 2013 Sarin attacks. Chemical weapons have been used more than 100 times. Syrians have died from the illegal use of chlorine gas, napalm, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and indiscriminate barrel bombs. Earlier this month, regime forces launched barrel bombs containing chlorine on besieged Aleppo.
International efforts to stop Assad's use of indiscriminate weapons have failed miserably. Across Syria, the regime still systematically uses chemical and other banned and indiscriminate weapons to kill, maim and terrorise civilians. Emboldened by impunity and the lack of consequences for targeting civilians, the regime ramped up its attacks on children, doctors and rescue workers, using whatever weapons it has at its disposal.
It is high time the Assad regime understands that there are consequences for such war crimes and violations of international law. If an end to the conflict is to be seen, civilian protection is essential. It is time that UN member states follow through on their mandate to enforce repeated security council resolutions that will halt the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
The international community can stop the killing of Syrian civilians and make a political solution more likely by enforcing a no-bombing zone across all of Syria. A no-bombing zone would deter indiscriminate airstrikes and make it impossible for the Assad regime to deploy chemical weapons through barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters. A no-bombing zone would also eliminate the main killer of Syrian civilians: indiscriminate aerial bombardments. Last month alone, indiscriminate airstrikes were responsible for two in three civilian deaths in Syria. Failure to change this brutal reality makes a political solution impossible to achieve.