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Refugees and displacement

Steven Hickey on witnessing the unfolding Syria crisis

Chemical weapons have killed 1,500 people in Syria. Conventional weapons have killed 500,000. Why do only chemical weapons attacks lead to an international response?

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was roundly condemned by Western leaders in the aftermath of the April 7 chemical weapons attack on Douma, which left 70 people dead. “A monster,” President Trump called Assad, whose regime likely perpetrated the attack. “A Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it.” On April 13, the United States and its allies, France and the United Kingdom, launched targeted airstrikes against three chemical sites in Syria. “The use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to go unchallenged,” said British Ambassador to the United Nations Karen Pierce.

Today on Displaced is Stephen Hickey, who served in Syria as the deputy British ambassador from 2010 until he was expelled from the country in 2012 from which he had a front row seat to the Assad regime’s vicious crackdown on the Syrian opposition following the pro-democracy uprisings in 2011. Hickey walks through the arc of the conflict, and together with Displaced hosts Ravi Gurumurthy and Grant Gordon, makes sense of how it may be possible to bring the Syria conflict to a close. This episode was recorded before Friday’s missile strikes, but takes a step back to explain the crisis in Syria and how to think about the strategic options on the table.

The debate on international intervention has been often been fueled by the use of chemical weapon in Syria. But in the context of the appalling scale of human suffering that is the Syrian conflict, chemical weapons attacks cause relatively few atrocities. Since 2011, roughly 500,000 people have been killed in fighting in Syria. Over half of those are civilians. Meanwhile, chemical weapons have killed an estimated 1,500 people since 2011.

What we've seen in recent decades are many of the problems and the cost of Western intervention. But I would argue in Syria in the last seven years we've seen very clearly the cost of non-intervention. Non-intervention is a choice.

The conversation dives into this challenging tension and Hickey argues that it’s crucial to hold the line on chemical weapons use, which has been outlawed under international law since 1925. “I understand the importance of maintaining a ban on chemical weapons simply because of the horrific nature of the weapon and its ability to be scaled up and to cause horrendous suffering,” he says. But the uproar over chemical weapons use throws the world’s grim acceptance of the high death toll from so-called conventional weapons and other war crimes into sharp relief.

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Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.