On Wednesday, Donald Trump condemned Tuesday’s chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Syrian northern province of Idlib as “horrible, unspeakable” and a “terrible affront to humanity.” The attack, carried out by a Syrian warplane using chemical weapons, killed 72 people and injured 300 others. 

According to medics, immediately after the bombs were dropped, the victims were having breathing problems, extreme pain and foaming at the mouth.

After the autopsy results, it is now confirmed by the Turkish justice minister, Bekir Bozdağ, that Assad used chemical weapons. The post-mortems were done in the southern province of Adana by officials from the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who remains inflexible, said that the only way to end his country’s civil war is by winning: no “option except victory”. 

The Syrian Civil War started in 2011 after Assad’s regime responded with violence against its own protesting citizens.  Obama imposed sanctions against the Assad government in January 2011 and in the summer of that year he requested him to step aside. By 2012, 5,000 civilians were killed by the Syrian army. In 2015, Russia was clearly helping Assad and in October Putin said that Russia’s goal in Syria was "stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise". In 2016, Putin said he was supporting Assad’s regime and he remains to this day one of his most powerful allies. Assad’s other big ally is Iran. The FBI has claimed that 10 European citizens have been tortured by the Assad government.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused Assad’s inhuman regime as a bureaucracy of horror: "faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the killers."

Response

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, advised against blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for the attack in northern Syria. He said that the West doesn’t have evidence against the Assad regime and that the Syrian army must “prevent any chemical agents that can be used as weapons from falling into the terrorists’ hands."

France's foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, wants Assad’s government to be prosecuted in relation to the use of chemical weapons and said that "France is still seeking to talk with its partners on the Security Council ... Russia in particular."

Trump said: “I will tell you that attack on children had a big impact on me – big impact. My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much … You’re now talking about a whole different level.” While the politically correct response is to condemn the attack, what really matters is how governments will act to stop Assad’s regime. Trump, for example was unable to give a concrete answer: “I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or another, but I’m certainly not going to be telling you … Militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.”

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that if the UN doesn’t respond to Assad’s violence, the US might have to intervene.

Boris Johnson said on Thursday that he “cannot understand how anybody on the U.N. Security Council could fail to sign up to a motion condemning the actions of the (Assad) regime that is almost certainly responsible for that crime."

Theresa May condemned Assad’s regime, but didn’t point that she might be helping the US to stop the atrocities. Instead, she said it was up to Russia to stop the war: “On the chemical weapons attack, obviously the OPCW needs to investigate soon and establish clearly all the facts. It is a despicable attack. If it is the case it has been conducted by the Assad regime it shows the barbarism of that regime. What I would say is, all those backing that regime including Russia need to use their influence to stop Assad from bombarding and dealing with his people in such a way.”

Why Putin won’t stop Assad?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the attacks by Assad’s forces “brutal”: “While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.” Tillerson also said that “As the self-proclaimed guarantors to the ceasefire negotiated in Astana, Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also called on Russia and Iran to take steps to stop Assad: “Russia and Iran, as countries engaged in the Syrian conflict, should use their influence to pressure the Assad regimen to cease illegal, chemical attacks against its own people.”

Assad’s chemical attack on his own people is supported by Putin, who is relying on Assad and Syria for control and influence in the region. While Russia profits from sending weapons to Syria and depends on Assad in order to retain its access to a naval facility at the port of Tartus, these are superficial reasons compared to the bigger issues. Putin’s reasons have less to do with Syria itself, than with the West. 

Putin hated the Arab Spring uprisings against dictators and saw Assad as a symbol of resistance to these revolutionary ideas for change. By attaching himself to Syria, Putin has also diverted attention away from his own war in Ukraine, and inserted himself into the circle of global powers, demonstrating that Russia is important in the international scene. In a sense, the Cold War has never ended, and what Putin is now doing in Syria is a form of proxy war between Russia and the US. Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said that “Russia has won the proxy war, at least for now,” and that Russia’s successes in Syria have enabled Russia, after its isolation from the West due to the annexation of Crimea, to gain control over decisions regarding the future of the Middle East.

Most disconcertingly, as Nato commander, General Phil Breedlove, makes clear: Russia and Syria are “weaponising” the refugee crisis to destabilise Europe. As he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, last year, they are terrorising and targeting rebel-held territories as a strategy to “get them [refugees] on the road” and “make them a problem for someone else.” He also added: “Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, Russia has done little to counter Daesh (Isis) but done a great deal to bolster the Assad regime and its allies. Together Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

The flow of immigrants is also “masking the movements of criminals, terrorists and foreign fighters” so that with refugees Isis or Daesh is “spreading like a cancer, taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own with terrorist attacks.”

This, of course triggers and exacerbates local nationalists who are becoming increasingly violent against the influx of foreigners, seeing all foreigners as dangerous. A look at populist movements and their circulation of anti-immigration manifestos across Europe confirms this.

The UN’s former High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has called countries to distinguish terrorism from asylum seekers who are fleeing to escape life-threatening situations. He said: “It is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

So, while us Europeans are getting mesmerised by populist propaganda or incapable ideologues, Putin appears to be the only politician in the current global landscape that sees the bigger picture and manipulates public opinion and political figures according to his own will. For us Europeans, it is important to recognise that the collapse of the European Union is Putin’s fantasy and the way he is actually achieving this, is by flooding Europe with Syrian refugees and by cultivating anti-European parties. If we want to stop the inhuman actions of Assad, we also need to recognise the enemies behind the regime itself.