There's growing evidence that the Syrian regime has been gassing civilians again, sending helicopters to unload barrel bombs filled with canisters of chlorine on women and children.
Chlorine gas, used to brutal effect in World War I, turns to hydrochloric acid in the lungs, which can lead to internal burning and drowning. But the gas was not on the list of chemical weapons banned by a U.S.-Russian accord in 2013.
Clearly, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad feels free to thumb his nose at the White House, despite the epic humanitarian crisis he's caused for Syria and its neighbors. Just as clearly, the White House lacks a coherent policy to respond.
"Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world," says U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Of its prewar population of 21 million, more than 150,000 have been killed, and nearly three million have fled to neighboring countries, threatening the stability of Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. An additional six million in Syria are displaced or in dire need of assistance, according to U.N. estimates, including 3.5 million trapped by fierce fighting.
The White House still touts the chemical-weapons accord as a major achievement. Under pressure, Assad has handed over or destroyed 84 percent of his declared sarin gas arsenal to international inspectors. But sarin killed only a few hundred people, while 40,000 more have died from bombs, mortars, and bullets since the chemical-weapons deal. The accord did nothing to stop the killing with conventional weapons and appears not even to have stopped the use of gas.
"By any stretch, the scale of war crimes and displacement and regional destabilization is a defining humanitarian emergency of this century," says David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, one of the most active aid agencies helping Syrians in and outside the country. "The use of chemical weapons, the abuse of humanitarian law, the barrel-bombing of his own cities, are extraordinary developments. We can't say we don't know what is going on."
His frustration, like Ban's, is palpable because the international community's response doesn't nearly match the scale of the crisis. "There is a numbing of the senses on this and the abuses are getting worse," he told me. He fears "the episodic response" of the international community "is a recipe for further killing on a large scale."
That's largely because the humanitarian issue is caught in the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict. Two months ago, the U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution demanding that Syria's warring sides permit civilians access to humanitarian aid. The Russians, who back Assad, ensured the resolution had no teeth - but Western nations threatened to act if Assad failed to comply.
The moment of truth is here. This week, the Security Council is due to discuss compliance with the resolution; a leaked U.N. assessment concludes it's been a dismal failure. The Syrian government is bombing civilian neighborhoods and grain silos while access to critical medical supplies and vaccines is denied. In besieged towns, people are eating leaves, and a polio epidemic has broken out in rebel-held areas.
"The Security Council must take action to deal with . . . flagrant violations," the report says. But we know that Russia will block any move against Assad.
There are plenty of good ideas on how to get more assistance to Syrian civilians. Miliband, a former British foreign minister, suggests several, including: send more aid across the Turkish or Iraqi borders to the needy in rebel-held areas, despite Syrian complaints that it violates its sovereignty; and insist on access to areas besieged by the government or - in a few cases - by rebel Islamist militias.
None of that will happen, however, unless Assad and his Russian backers are convinced they have no choice but to agree. That would require decisions President Obama still refuses to make.
This month, when appearing before a Senate committee, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the administration mantra that the Syrian war could be ended only by a diplomatic solution. "The moment is not ripe," he said, "because we still have to change Assad's calculation." When asked how to do that, he said he'd discuss it only in a classified briefing. "We talk about that," he added. "Of course, we do kick it around."
What's still being kicked around is whether to aid vetted Syrian rebels with heavy weapons, including antiaircraft missiles that can shoot down helicopters dropping chlorine gas. This debate has been going on for two years while moderate rebels were squeezed out by Islamist fighters well-armed and well-funded by radical Gulf sheikhs.
Such a move would probably change Assad's calculations, but the White House continues to dither. The CIA is reportedly giving vetted rebels antitank weapons and training a few hundred of them in Jordan, but at this pace, Assad will never feel pressured into a diplomatic solution.
And Assad feels free - despite all the White House posturing on chemical weapons - to keep killing Syrian civilians with gas.