Last week, Donald Trump authorized a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from which a chemical attack was launched by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That strike marked a significant departure from Barack Obama’s widely discredited policy toward Syria – one that could change the Syrian conflict’s rules of engagement, if not its course.
The use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in the Middle East is far from a new phenomenon, and Arab socialist and Baathist regimes – with their ideological kinship to Nazism and fascism – have been the most common perpetrators. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian forces regularly used chemical weapons against Yemeni loyalist guerrillas and civilian villagers from 1963 to 1967. Saddam Hussein’s forces also used them regularly, against Iranians, Iraqi Kurds, and Iraq’s Shia majority, from 1983 to 1991.
But the Assad regime has outdone them all, conducting perhaps the most lethal, intense, and large-scale chemical-weapons campaign in the Middle East. Since late 2012, there have been some 64 alleged attacks, employing various toxic chemicals, ranging from chlorine to sarin gas. The latest attack, which killed more than 85 civilians and injured over 550, was part of this ongoing campaign.
In the Middle East’s six-decade-long history of state-directed chemical mass murder, one power has consistently protected the perpetrators: Russia. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union stifled condemnations of Nasser’s attacks on the Yemenis, leading then-United Nations Secretary-General U Thant to declare that he was powerless to deal with the matter.
Today, Russia’s involvement goes further than silencing debate in the UN Security Council or promoting diplomatic and legal impunity. President Vladimir Putin’s regime may have contributed to the latest chemical attack, by secretly reneging on the 2013 “framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons,” which called for the elimination of Syria’s stockpiles by mid-2014. It may even have been directly complicit in the attack.
Deterring Assad demanded credible military action. That is what the Trump administration has now provided, proving that it is both willing and able to punish those who cross its red lines
In any case, the US now seems to be shifting its approach in a way that could have far-reaching implications for the Syrian conflict, almost all of which would be bad for Assad and his patrons in Russia and Iran. From a military perspective, the main impact of the strike – which apparently destroyed 20% of Assad’s operational aircraft in less than an hour – will be to boost deterrence, though to what extent remains unclear.
What is clear is that the Obama administration established no deterrence at all. Obama defined the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that the Assad regime must not cross. But when Assad killed at least 1,429 people in Ghouta – including more than 426 children – with sarin gas in August 2013, Tomahawk cruise missiles did not rain down on Assad’s forces. And although the agreement with Russia led in August 2014 to the destruction of more than 600 metric tons of chemical agents, Assad and his allies carried out some 20 chemical attacks on the Aleppo, Idlib, and Rif Damascus governorates between July 2014 and the end of Obama’s presidency.
Deterring Assad demanded credible military action. That is what the Trump administration has now provided, proving that it is both willing and able to punish those who cross its red lines.
The “able” part matters. The Kremlin deployed missile-defense systems – including the state-of-the-art SA-21 Growler – in Syria about six months ago, claiming that Assad’s air bases were now safe from American cruise missiles. While such claims may have been useful to boost sales of Russian arms showcased in Syria, they turned out to mean little: Russia failed to intercept the US missiles.
Of course, in tipping off Russia about its plans, the Trump administration may have succeeded in preventing a Russian attempt to thwart them. But Russia probably could not have intercepted the US missiles in any case. The Growler systems are located at Russia’s air base in Latakia and a naval base in Tartus, more than 75 kilometers and 120km, respectively, from the Shayrat air base that the US struck. That is too far for the Growler’s short-range projectiles, and the system’s long-range projectiles cannot intercept missiles – such as the BQM-109 Tomahawks used by the US – that can skim the earth’s surface at an altitude of just five meters.
But if the US airstrike left a bruise on Russia, the damage done to Assad’s forces is less clear. To be sure, they lost about 20 aircraft and suffered significant damage to bunkers, fuel tanks, munitions storage facilities, and air-defense radars. But parts of the airport remained operational after the attack, and Assad’s forces bombed the same sarin-choked town of Khan Sheikhun with conventional ordnance just hours after the Tomahawks struck.
This points to a fundamental flaw in the US approach to Syria. The overwhelming majority of Assad’s victims have been killed by conventional, not chemical, weapons. Yet the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has focused on halting chemical attacks. In both cases, US policymakers have sought tactics for reducing war crimes, rather than credible strategies for ending the war.
An oft-repeated adage in diplomatic discussions about the Syrian conflict is that there are no military solutions. That does not mean that military action has no role to play. On the contrary, there probably can be no diplomatic solution or lasting settlement without action that resets the military balance and undermines both the conventional and unconventional capacities of Assad and his patrons.
It does mean, however, that one coalition of actors won’t be able to eradicate the others. It also means that the challenge for the Trump administration extends far beyond outmaneuvering Russian air-defense systems and tactically punishing a brutal, petty dictator.
Omar Ashour, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Global Policy, is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and Collusion to Collision: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt.
There are so many "petty dictators" in the Middle-East, I wander why all the concentration is on the removal of Assad by US and its allies. Is it not because:
1 Although Saudi and (Persian) Gulf Arab dictators are worse than Assad in all aspects, it is of the interest of US to protect these dictators.
2 US policy solidified by Bush II was articulated beautifully and honestly as “either you are with us or against us.” That means either you serve my interest or the consequence will be your destruction and removal.
3 Arab dictators serve US interest so in return there will be a guarantee that they will be protected by mafia boss, namely US.
4 Main US partner, Western Europe is also the share holder in this so called humanitarian endeavor to bring peace and stability in the Middle East. Whereas the truth is mafia boss and its Western gang are after exploitation of the neighborhood while they have traitors who work for them (Turkey and Arab dictators)
5 Why Assad? Well, Assad is Nuisance to Israel’s expansion. He opposed Israel contrary to Turkish and Arab beggars who constantly lick the rear end’s hole of the Jewish State.
6 Assad helped Iran to block Israel from further atrocities in Lebanon and hopefully in Palestine.
7 I could go on and on. It is the story of Western domination and exploitation were it is being collaborated by Turk and Arab traitors so that like dogs, a loaf of bread somehow will be thrown at them by their master and owner, USA.
This bastard dog is one-eyed.He can only see the crime of ASAD not others in the ME.
I am seeing a marked surge in the number of anti-Syrian propagandists on Asia Times.
They have all been regurgitating the false claim (indeed a false flag) that the Syrian government force has used chemical weapons when in fact it’s the US-backed rebels that were actually responsible, just like the previous false flag.
This cannot be a coincidence. Seems some kind of propaganda operation is ongoing.
The Empire of Chaos never rests.
Omar Ashour is in salary list of Qutars king/dictator ,, I think this tell us a lot,
I might have to delete Asiatimes from my bookmarks it’s starting to sound like the mainstream media in the West. I guess this just proves that everybody can be bought
As to chemical attacks happening in Syria? Well we have to remember that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait supported Saddam Hussein, when he went after Iran, Syria’s main regional ally. And what did these governments fund Saddam Hussein to do? Well they funded his use of chemical and biological weapons against Iran and the Kurdish population as well. Gosh! It seems like such a short time ago, too. Do we all have collective amnesia or something?
People who write this article.Is a dog serving America.This writing story.
Written in advance of America s" attack on Syria and Russian are not so carefull
not to think that America will be betray Russia.After this Russia will not allow America a second chance to attack. If did America must meet heavy attacked back from Russia sure.
An admitted neo-con runs this place.
an interesting relevation:
any proof of your statements? The Goutha attack in 2013 is no longer attributed to the regular army. Naither is this latest attack. Nobody knows for certain what happened. Which is why Russia and Syria ask for an independent inquiry — which Western power don’t want. They know already. The west is omniscient.
This author is a bonafide fool.
As Archie told Otto in the excellent movie ‘A Fish Called Wanda’: Are You (Omar Ashour) completely deranged?
Comments are closed.