After the long weeks of massive assaults on the East Ghouta area of suburban Damascus didn’t result in the surrender of the local rebels, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad sought to alter the balance through the aerial bombing of the town of Douma with lethal chemical weaponry.
As of last Friday, it appeared the military efforts in the district and in the town were drawing to a close against the backdrop of negotiations that Russian representatives in Syria had been conducting with the Jaish al-Islam militia, which has control of most of the district. But the negotiations broke down and fierce bombardments resumed and included the use of chemical weapons.
There is no doubt that the Assad regime and its Russian patron were well-aware of the shock that the use of chemical weapons would cause around the world. As a result, the use of the banned weapons should not be seen simply as a local military effort aimed at getting the rebels to surrender, but rather as a display of ownership and ridicule directed at the Trump administration.
In addition, the bombing actually immediately follows President Donald Trump’s confirmation last week that he intends to order the removal of American forces from Syria, a declaration that has been interpreted as America’s final disengagement from Syria, relegating the country fully into the hands of Russia, Iran and Turkey.
At a summit meeting that was convened in Turkey, these three countries concluded a plan involving diplomatic steps aimed at resolving the crisis in Syria without the involvement of the United States or any other Western country. Following the summit, Turkey dispatched additional forces to the Idlib area, which is controlled by a mix of militia forces, with the aim of creating a de-escalation zone and then the removal of the rebels from the area and the reestablishment of control by the Assad regime there.
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But disagreements between Russia and Syria on one side and Turkey on the other over the status of the Kurdish minority and particularly over Turkey’s incursion into the Afrin region and its threat to broaden its involvement in the Manbij area pushed Russia and Syria into quickly trying to create facts on the ground.
In an attempt to quickly assert control over Eastern Ghouta and to send an unequivocal and lethal message to the rebels in Idlib, chemical weapons were again resorted to, exactly a year after the chemical attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib governate. That prior attack prompted the United States to respond by firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, along with a Trump statement that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
This time it appears that the American response has not yet been fleshed out. Trump is in fact calling for an international response but for the meantime, he is not committing to an American response if the international reaction is late in coming. He also is not saying what the international response should be and whether there are grounds for a military reaction or just a strong resolution on the part of the United Nations Security Council, one that would be inconsequential on a practical level.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert delivered a relatively restrained statement saying: “These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community,” and adding: “The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately.”
Interestingly, Iran was not mentioned this time in connection with the chemical attack, despite that fact that a year ago, the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was attributed to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Syria. If Trump intends to put together an international coalition to mount an assault on Syria, it might be worth noting the calls in Britain for the British Foreign Office to convene an international commission of inquiry. That would mean that one of the potential partners to such a military operation, Britain, might not be so quick to load its missiles and deploy its bombers for such a mission.
The current situation in which countries around the world, particularly from the United States, are expressing shock but not presenting practical options could of course change shortly, and the United States, along perhaps with other members of the Western coalition, may in fact decide to demonstrate a show of military force against the Syrian regime. Trump could also announce that he has reconsidered his intention to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria and instead reinforce American troops there. The question, however, is whether the deaths of about 150 Syrian civilians and the wounding of hundreds of others in the latest chemical attack will spur the United States to alter its plans to disengage from Syria.
One might also muse over the prospect of a direct hit on Assad’s presidential residence, but that would be a clear act of war that would require the United States to completely expand its involvement without any sustainable strategy that could bring about a resolution of the Syrian crisis. Such a step, as opposed to a single operation, would require Congressional approval as well. It would also require cooperation with Western allies and a sharp deterioration in relations with Russia, which opposes even a commission of inquiry as long as the rebels remain in Douma and Eastern Ghouta.
American military involvement in Syria is something that Israel hasn’t concealed its desire for, and Israel expressed its dismay over Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. From Israel’s standpoint, such involvement is an important guarantee that Iranian influence in Syria will be stopped, after Russia disappointed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and didn’t manage to curb the presence of Iranian forces or to achieve their withdrawal to a considerable distance away from the Golan Heights.
On the other hand, Israel needs Russian cooperation and coordination with the Russian air force, which operates in Syria, if it is to attack Syrian territory unimpeded. This need has already found expression in the Israeli silence in the face of the poisoning in Britain of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian agent, and in the absence of a formal Israeli response also blaming Russia for responsibility for the latest chemical attack.
It will be interesting to see how Israel acts if it is invited to join an international coalition seeking to mount an assault on Syria in the wake of the chemical attack in Douma.