The Syrian chemical attack, US response, and what comes next

Girl at a Syrian civil war vigil in Hanover, Germany. CC, BY, SA, Bernd Schwabe 2015
Last night, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles on the air base in Syria believed to have been used to launch a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria's Idlib Province on April 4th. Was the Syrian regime really to blame? If so, was such a counterattack wise? What happens next? Does this herald a change in Trump's approach to Russia and its Syrian ally?

Some have wondered aloud what benefit Assad could possibly obtain with such a provocative move while noting al-Qaeda's strength in Idlib and that it would gain the most if the US turned on Assad. This pondering betrays limited powers of imagination over the potential uses to Assad and, more importantly, ignores the facts altogether. Russia claims a Syrian regime bomb exploded on a rebel chemical weapons facility, causing the gas to leak out. Blowing up stores of sarin, the agent the symptoms suggest was responsible, would most likely destroy it. What's more, nerve agents like sarin are "usually stocked in a 'binary manner', which means they are kept as two distinct chemical precursors that are combined just before use, either manually or automatically inside a weapon when launched" (source: BBC). This means Russia's explanation is "pretty fanciful", as a former British military expert on chemical weapons explained in the same article. Sarin is a sophisticated chemical agent out of reach of most rebel groups, eyewitnesses saw the bombers come and the gas attack occurred at the same time, and alternative explanations are hard to believe. Rarely is anything 100% certain in war, especially in the Middle East, but the Syrian regime is almost certainly responsible for the attack.

The US therefore targeted the right place in response to an atrocious chemical weapons attack. Was the response the right move? In terms of setting norms against the use of such weapons, definitely. Failure to respond forcefully would risk normalizing the use of chemical weapons. This is exactly the criticism many, including myself, leveled against Barack Obama after his failure to follow through on threats to attack Syria over its use of chemical weapons in 2013. The missile launch was mostly symbolic, as advanced warning was given to the Russians (and presumably from them to the Syrians) to reduce casualties and prevent hitting Russians. The air strip the missiles hit can be repaired. The message is clear: "Obama may have been afraid to strike. I am not." President Trump has shown he is willing to take risks and that he is not willing to countenance everything just because he would like a deal with Russia and did not wish to remove Assad from power.

There's been some discussion of the risks of an attack, which led Andrew Exum, an Obama-era DoD official and now a contributing editor for The Atlantic, to argue a US attack on Syria would be unwise. He pointed out, among other things, that US jets have been flying over Syrian airspace unhindered as they have focused on fighting the Islamic State group (IS), which Assad also opposes. Exum also noted the risks of escalating tensions with Russia if its soldiers were ever hit or planes downed. These risks are real, and yet Trump was right not to be swayed by them. Yes, Assad could down US planes with his anti-aircraft systems, but this would be a much greater risk to him than to the US: In an escalation, his military is no match for that of the US and he knows it. Attacking the US would be the best way to get himself remove from power. The concerns over Russia are bigger, which is why the US gave the Russians advance warning. Still: Remember when Turkey downed a Russian jet while Erdogan was still calling for Assad's removal? Putin and Erdogan now get along quite well, even though Turkey's attack on the Russian jet was not an accident. They have managed to find common ground and, on Syria at least, this is not an impossibility for the US, either. After the fall of Raqqa at the latest, things will turn to how the conflict in Syria ends. Difficult US-Russia negotiations have always been inevitable. Avoiding doing anything in Syria out of a fear of Russia would not strengthen the US's leverage in such talks.

So what happens next? This is hard to predict, but I think Trump is beginning to get a taste of the difficulty of conducting foreign relations. If things do escalate between the US and the Assad regime, US-Russia relations will suffer, making Trump's desired deal with Russia even harder to achieve. That is no great loss because such a deal was an absurd idea, anyway. The US and Russia both wish to fight IS, but they have many more competing than common interests, from Ukraine, to NATO, to Iran. If this has made Trump come to his senses, it's a good thing. Still, the strike was limited for a reason: Few Americans wish to become intricately involved in Syria and there is no sign that Trump does, either. It is possible that Trump may now demand that Assad leave power and take steps to ensure this, perhaps making some sort of deal with Russia that would retain its influence over Assad's successor. Another possibility is that things will return to the way they were before the attack if Assad avoids using chemical weapons and does not provoke the US. Trump's message will have been received and that's that. This being the Middle East, there is always the third possibility of some sort of increasing chaos involving the US more than it wanted to be, but this was always the case. For now, we can only wait and see.

Whatever happens, the idea that someone can use chemical weapons against innocent civilians with impunity has been seriously challenged, as has the (related) idea that Trump would not go against Russia or Assad due to his personal feelings towards Vladimir Putin. These are both good things.


  1. Nice Post, thank you for sharing!!!

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