Analysis

Assad's Chemical Attack Shows Last Stage of Syria's War Could Be Most Deadly Yet

With the Trump administration currently under investigations for its Kremlin ties, it will certainly not act in Syria, leaving Russia with the keys to Syria's fate.

A Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. April 4, 2017.
A Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. April 4, 2017. Uncredited/AP

In recent weeks it’s become the norm to speak of the “final stages of the war in Syria.” Last week both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the Trump administration is no longer holding to previous American policy that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go (not that the Obama administration ever backed that policy by deeds).

Last month both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin security arrangements in Syria for the day after the war. Things were wrapping up. Then in the space of less than sixteen hours, two series of explosions on two different continents, 2,800 kilometers away from each other, proved a reminder that the Syrian war is far from over.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at a place near the Tekhnologichesky Institut subway station in St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday, April 3, 2017.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

The only thing connecting the fourteen people killed in the explosions on the St. Petersburg metro on Monday afternoon and the at least 100 people gassed to death in an aerial bombing of Khan Sheikhoun, a town in north-west Syria, early this (Tuesday) morning, is that they are all casualties in the latest round of the Syrian war. It may nearing its end, but the final stage of this bloody war in which some 400 thousand people have been killed, will almost certainly be as deadly and devastating as the previous ones.

The perpetrators behind either attack are not fully identified yet. But there remains little doubt as to their origins. Russian security services are disclosing that they have identified a suspect, who is according to Russian media reports is apparently a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen who was known to have ties with radical Islamic groups and disappeared two years ago. It indicates that he most likely travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight in the ranks of Islamic State. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin isn’t rushing to tell its citizens that this is likely a repercussion of its military intervention in Syria, on the side of the Assad regime. There is everything to suggest however that just like the bombing of the Russian airliner above Sinai in October 2015, killing 224 people, and the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey last December by an off-duty policeman shouting “do not forget Syria, do not forget Aleppo”, the motive behind the St. Petersburg bombings was the same.

>> The leads in the St. Petersburg metro bombing point to Syria | Analysis >>

Likewise, the origins of the this morning’s attack on Syrian civilians near the city of Idlib has yet to be fully confirmed but from the reports on the ground, the chemical attack took place around the time when civilians targets were being bombed from the air. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and sources on the ground have been reporting for a number of days now an intensive air-campaign against towns and villages in the rebel-held Idlib region, which is the main target of the Assad regime now. Only two air-forces are currently operating there, those Russia and Syria. Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed that it hadn’t been carrying out missions in the area, but any operations over northwestern Syria are coordinated and carried out with Russia which has controlled the airspace for the last year and a half. Syria admits to having attacked “rebel” targets and claims the deaths were caused when of its bombs hit a “rebel factory” manufacturing poison gas. This is highly unlikely. Not only is there no information of such a factory even existing, but the footage from Khan Shaikhoun indicates the casualties were over a relatively widespread area, indicating that the chemicals came from above, not a localized explosion on the ground.

The Assad regime has form on this, having carried out the attack on August 21, 2013, in which hundreds were killed by sarin, the substance which seems to have been used this morning as well.

>> Syria chemical attack: This is what happens when you're exposed to a deadly nerve agent >>

Assad’s Russian protectors may not have been aware of the bomb-load being carried by the Syrian warplanes, but it is implicated in any bombardments carried out by the regime and has executed many of its own in the area over recent months. Since the fall of Aleppo two months ago, Idlib remains the main rebel stronghold not affiliated with ISIS and is now the main target of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Russia’s involvement is also the main reason why just like three and a half years ago, the international community will do little, besides talk, in response to the gassing of civilians.

All the arguments that were used then against action by former President Barack Obama will be deployed again. A retaliatory strike against the Assad regime won’t achieve anything. He will survive it. Even if Assad was to be removed, there is no force in Syria which can replace him. This is even more poignant now, as the relatively moderate rebels of 2013 have largely gone over to more radical Islamic organizations with past or present affiliations to Al Qaida or ISIS. And of course, unlike the case in 2013, now Russia is there, with fighter-planes, special forces on the ground and advanced anti-aircraft systems, including the S-400, which is designed to deal also with the cruise missiles that the U.S. and its British and French allies once discussed launching against Assad.

Russia, by inserting itself deeper in to Syria, has made itself key to the country’s fate, and now that it is so deeply invested there, will not allow Assad’s latest atrocity to snatch away its victory in preserving his rule. On the other hand, as the St. Petersburg bombings have proven once again, Russia has also made itself in to the prime target of Sunni radicals. The Russian strategy of pushing its own radical Islamists to Syria and hoping they would never come back seems to be backfiring.

As one senior Israeli intelligence official said recently, “Russia may have succeeded in its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, but it doesn’t want to become the enemy of all the Sunnis. It has tens of millions of its own as it is”. Which is why Putin took time today to speak on the phone with major Muslim leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan and with King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

If the Syrian war is indeed entering its final stage, before the diplomats finally agree on a comprehensive ceasefire, the stakes are now even higher for everyone. For Assad, this means it is his last chance to try and grab back the important Idlib region, which controls border crossings to Turkey. Which may be why his forces used chemical weapons this morning. For Iran and its proxy Hezbollah it means trying to solidify their gains and establish themselves as long-term power-players in Syria after the war.

Israel is of course anxious to prevent this outcome and the creation of a “Shi’a Crescent” reaching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. Netanyahu has warned that Israel will act militarily if its strategic interests in Syria are in jeopardy and was the first world leader to react publicly to the chemical attack (though he did not mention Assad in his statement). This looks like a message to Putin that he should assert more control in Syria. Turkey is against any radical moves in Syria, as it is solidifying its own buffer zone on the border, preventing the rise of a Kurdish autonomy.

Russia is the key to all the parties aspirations. It is also the reason the Trump administration, currently under threat of investigations in the Trump team’s ties to the Kremlin will certainly not act in Syria. The threat of incriminating leaks coming out of Russia is too great, and besides, why should Trump be more moral than Obama who in 2013 did nothing? And of course the European leaders, fearful of another wave of a million Syrian refugees entering the continent this summer, like in 2015, will sit on their hands. Putin has nothing to worry from them. But even he may not be able to contain the blowback from his own actions in Syria from impacting on Russia’s cities.