Trump threatens Syria over chemical attack

Choked up: The media showed many terrible images of children injured in April’s attack. © EMC

The US president warned that Syria would “pay a heavy price” if it launched another chemical attack against civilians. But is that so much worse than killing them with bullets and bombs?

The warning appeared to take even the US military by surprise. Late on Monday, the White House issued a statement. If Syria’s President Assad “conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons,” it said, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

The threat was prompted by intelligence showing possible preparations for a chemical attack similar to one that killed at least 80 people in April.

That attack provoked President Trump to launch a missile strike on a Syrian airbase, marking America’s first military action against Assad in the six-year civil war.

Syria denies planning an attack, but international tensions are running high in Syria. Last week the USA shot down a Syrian fighter jet that dropped bombs near American-backed troops fighting ISIS.

Russia, which backs the Syrian government, in turn said it would shoot down American planes if they strayed into western Syria. It is a situation which could easily spiral out of control.

Chemical weapons were first banned in 1899 at the Hague Peace Conference. But after the Germans deployed mustard gas on the battlefield in 1915, they became widely used in the first world war.

Over 90,000 soldiers were killed by chemical weapons in that conflict and many more were injured. The public were horrified and in 1925 most nations signed the Geneva Protocol, banning the use of such weapons once again.

However, various countries, including Syria, stockpiled chemical weapons in the 1970s and 80s, and now Assad is allegedly using them against his own people.

Reacting to the attack in April, Trump said: “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”

The scale of suffering in Syria’s civil war can be hard to comprehend. Estimates of the death toll go as high as 470,000.

But of those, only around 1,500 are thought to have been killed by chemical weapons. The vast majority of deaths, both civilian and military, have been caused by conventional weapons such as bullets and bombs.

Knowing this, is our response to chemical weapons overblown?

Chemical reaction

Yes, say some. We feel bad about chemical weapons because the media show us pictures of the victims, but not of those of bombs as they are simply too bloody and gruesome. Just because we are sheltered from seeing their effects, conventional weapons are no less brutal. We should care about all civilian deaths.

That misses the point, say others. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate, barbaric and cause a prolonged and painful death. If we do not make a stand against them every time they are used, they could become commonplace and many more people, including civilians, would be killed.

You Decide

  1. Should we react more strongly to civilian deaths caused by chemical attacks?
  2. What steps should Western leaders take to prevent further civilian casualties in Syria?


  1. Many children have been caught up in the Syria conflict. Write a letter to one. What would you ask, and what would you tell them?
  2. Research and write a side of A4 on another type of weapon that has been banned. Why was it banned and how did it happen?

Some People Say...

“The international community has abandoned Syria.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Assad has chemical weapons and all the evidence shows that he is willing to use them. Trump showed in April that he is more willing to intervene in Syria than Barack Obama was, so the threat is likely to be taken seriously.
What do we not know?
What evidence prompted Trump to issue this warning. The Syrian government denies that it was planning an attack, but that is hardly surprising. It is unusual to threaten military action publicly, and the warning could have been aimed at Syria’s backers, Russia and Iran, in an attempt to get them to rein in Assad.

Word Watch

80 people
The attack took place in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Around 33 children are thought to have been among the dead. Evidence of deadly sarin gas was found.
The Americans launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase, thought to be the launch point for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, where the latest activity has also taken place. Russian personnel were also stationed there.
Mustard or chlorine gas causes blindness and burns to the skin and respiratory system.
Most nations
The USA did not sign the agreement until 1975. The Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons, but not manufacturing or stockpiling them. The 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention banned this, and has been signed by 192 countries, excluding Israel, Egypt and North Korea.
Iraq also stockpiled chemical weapons, and used them against Iran in 1983. At the time, it was an ally of the USA, which took no action.
According to research by the Syrian American Medical Society. It is very difficult to get accurate information out of Syria, so the exact figures may never be known.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.