WASHINGTON, DC — The sun glints off of the yellow coffins lined up on Pennsylvania Avenue. As tourists marvel at the sight of the Executive Mansion, a small group is laying out the cardboard meant to represent the lives of hundreds of children whose lives were taken one year ago today. The reaction on the street, however, appears to be much the same as the reaction inside the White House to the action: indifference.
In the early hours of August 21, 2013, men, women, and children lay sleeping in a suburb of Damascus. Hours later, the rest of the world began to awake to whispers that a massive chemical attack had taken place, leaving hundreds if not thousands dead. Over the coming days and weeks, those rumors would become fact as it became apparent that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government had perpetrated the largest mass killing through chemical weapons since the Halabja attack against Iraqi Kurds in 1988.
One year later, as the August heat beat down upon the small group assembled before the White House, it was at times a struggle to hear the names being read-off of the length of symbolic red paper — meant to signify the “red-line” Obama laid down against chemical weapons being used. Between the ambient noise of the tourists crowding around the gates and the much larger twin-megaphone set-up of the evangelical Christians preaching that “we all die someday” and the need to repent, the small portable amp the Syrians microphone was plugged into stood little chance.
But still the names — more than 1300 in all, compiled by the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Damascus and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) in London — were slowly spoken aloud, each in their own turn as the coffins and passersby listened.
No one group led the ceremony, facilitated by a coalition calling itself “100,000 Names.” “We don’t do these things or come to these things with an end goal or a result in mind, because we are very much disillusioned with the Obama administration,” Lina Sergie Attar, one of the organizers of the event, said. “We don’t come expecting action, because this has been a president of inaction when it comes to Syria. We come mainly to remind the world and to remind ourselves of the sacrifice of the Syrian people and mourn them.”
Qusai Zakarya was the first to step up to the list to begin speaking for the dead. Zakarya was living with friends at the time of the attack, as his house had been destroyed in previous shelling. “We managed to find some good leaves of trees, and some olives, to eat,” he told ThinkProgress, describing the starvation tactics in play at the time. “We made a weird kind of salad. Believe me, nobody would have the guts to taste it. But it tasted of burgers and pizza for us.”
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As his friends slept, Zakarya told ThinkProgress, the sound of rockets being fired began to reach him along with alarms. Soon after impact, he lost the ability to breathe, his heart in pain, needing to beat his chest in order to catch his breath. In the streets, he saw what he described as a “scene from Judgement Day.” While trying to help civilians to a field hospital, he continued, he passed out only to awaken hours later. He was later told that the doctors had given up trying to restart his heart after four minutes of trying and placed among the dead. Only when Zakarya’s friends noticed he was there and called over doctors did he receive further treatment.
Since March, Zakarya has been in the United States, touring the country and attempting to raise further awareness of the plight of those still in Syria. He’s been to Yale and Berkley to speak to America’s future leaders. He’s spoken to congressmen and senators. He’s met with members of the National Security Council, briefing them about the situation. “To be honest, there’s a lot of amazing people here in the States who are dying to do more for Syria and the Syrian people. Not just because we’re Syrians. Because we’re humans, just like everyone else,” he said, placing the blame for inaction squarely at Obama’s feet.
The solemn anniversary comes just days after the administration announced that its mission to destroy Assad’s declared stockpile of weapons had been finished earlier than planned. “Today we mark an important achievement in our ongoing effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction by eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile,” President Obama said in a statement commemorating the event on Monday. “The most lethal declared chemical weapons possessed by the Syrian regime were destroyed by dedicated U.S. civilian and military professionals using a unique American capability aboard the M/V Cape Ray – and they did so aboard that U.S. vessel several weeks ahead of schedule.”
In all, the United States — acting with the United Nations, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and other countries — had destroyed several hundred thousand tons worth of chemical weapons and precursors. The sarin gas that killed the civilians in Ghouta would no longer threaten anyone again. The administration has argued that the deal between the U.S. and Russia that allowed such a massive project to be undertaken with no shots fired was the best possible outcome from last year’s tragedy.
But to activists like Attar and Bara Sarraj, who both traveled from Chicago for the event, the White House backing away from what they saw as the preferred result of following through on its threats to use military force was a mistake. Sarraj, who spent years in the 1980s in Syria’s prisons before emigrating to the United States to study at Harvard, compared the chemical weapons deal to “a police department where you take the weapon, but you leave the criminal out on the street: a completely inefficient way of keeping the safety and security of the world. It’s very, very funny, weird logic.”
There’s also the fact that the Assad regime still possesses one method of chemical warfare: chlorine. Given its civilian uses, the gas isn’t listed alongside the substances banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention and there were no demands for the Syrian government to turn over any stockpiles it might have. In the months since Ghouta, Attar said, the Syrian government has utilized chlorine against civilians more than two dozen times. The OPCW and U.N. are currently struggling to verify these claims, as YouTube videos showing alleged attacks continue to be posted as recently as yesterday.
Looming over the ceremony alongside the ghosts of the dead was the specter of the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). It was ISIS that the Obama administration opted to bomb, not the Assad regime. It was the Yazidi that the United States chose to rescue from destruction, not the Syrians. That decision, despite the differing circumstances caused by a border between the two that seems to be evaporating to many on the ground but still remains all important in the international order, seemed hypocritical to several of the activists ThinkProgress spoke with.
“You don’t take the permission of a criminal,” Sarraj said when asked whether the U.S. should strike at ISIS without the Syrian government’s permission. “That’s not the way. You need to go in and dislodge that criminal as you dislodged Saddam.” And still, in the background, the names continued to be read.