59 American cruise missiles rained down on Syria yesterday as punishment for the Assad regime allegedly deploying chemical weapons against civilians in Idlib.  The chemical weapon used was most likely sarin gas, a nasty type of nerve agent that causes respiratory failure.  Images from Syria showed dead women and children, limp and lifeless as if someone had just flipped their off switch.

Gases like sarin are considered weapons of mass destruction and are banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons is also a gross breach of every international norm, something that the United States has put a lot of work into preventing from happening over the years lest warfare swallow our civilization wholesale.

Just prior to the sarin attack, the Trump administration initiated a policy reversal from the Obama legacy, stating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can remain in power.  The beleaguered Assad has fought a pitched battle against nearly the entire world it seems, but found allies in Iran and Russia who have helped preserve his regime.  Waiting out President Obama, it seemed that Assad really was here to stay.

Regarding chemical weapons, Obama and Assad had been down this road before.  Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” in the Syrian Civil War, and that their use would result in some type of US military action against the regime.  Obama was telling Assad, and the world, that the international prohibition against chemical weapons remained and would be enforced.  Then Ghouta happened.

In August of 2013, a rocket carrying sarin gas was launched into Ghouta killing scores of civilians.  The United States estimated the death toll as 1,429, the Syrian government putting it at 494.  At any rate it was the worst chemical weapons attack that the world had seen in decades.  Criticized for inaction, Obama actually came much closer to launching a military retaliation against the Assad regime than most people are aware.  Operations orders were written and troops put on standby.

After a conversation with a trusted aide in the rose garden, Obama decided not to jump into a costly and ambiguous war in Syria.  It was a near miss for Assad who denied that his forces were behind the Ghouta attack but the jihadist and rebel forces have never had significant quantities of sarin nor could they manufacture it on their own.  Whatever the case, the international response to the attack pushed Assad to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and allow the international community to supervise the destruction of his chemical weapons stockpile.

It should also be noted that ISIS and other rebel elements in Syria have also deployed chemical weapons, such as home-brewed chlorine gas and that this is also a war crime.

Assad had played a shrewd game of chess with the international community, and understood that there were in fact some red lines regarding chemical weapons.  The new Trump administration policy that America was no longer in the business of regime change in Syria further solidified the fact that Assad is a survivor, and so is the elite network that he surrounds himself with in Damascus.