President Donald Trump has responded to the latest atrocity in Syria and the use of chemical weapons, calling Syrian President Bahar al-Assad an “animal” and linking Iran and Russia to the barbaric act. He said there is a “big price to pay.”
There are many questions arising from Trump’s statement on Twitter. The most important are: what will the United States do in response and how will America’s actions affect its deteriorating relations with Russia?
There already is wide agreement in the White House, National Security Council, State Department and Department of Homeland Security (nothing yet from the Pentagon) that Assad and his allies have carried out an “atrocity” for which, as Trump tweeted, had “no reason whatsoever.”
Chemical weapons have limited battlefield use. When they were used in World War I to clean out allied trenches, their effectiveness had mixed results. A lot of troops were killed but the war’s outcome was not clearly affected. The same result occurred many years later in the battle of al-Faw Peninsula between Iraq and Iran.
Both sides used chemical agents, but only Iraq had nerve gas in the form of Sarin and Tabun, which was mixed with other poisons to use against the Iranians. Unfortunately for Iraqi troops, the mixture was extraordinarily dangerous to handle and blew back in their faces when released, leaving many Iraqi soldiers sick or dead. It is far from clear whether chemical weapons made any difference in the al-Faw battle.
Later Saddam Hussein used a variety of chemical agents, including Sarin, against the Kurds, with one of the worst examples being the assault on Halabja, a Kurdish town in Iraq. This was clearly an attack on civilians because men of fighting age had already left the town.
The chemical attack was designed to punish the Kurds for supporting the Kurdish independence movement. The attack left thousands dead, and many more so sick they would later die from diseases such as respiratory ailments and cancers. Like al-Faw, Saddam used a “cocktail” of poisonous agents in Halabja, making medical treatment difficult if not impossible.
It can be argued that Saddam’s Halabja episode paid off by discouraging Kurdish fighters and disheartening the pro-Kurdish independence movement. Unfortunately, Western powers were not sufficiently enraged by Saddam’s attacks on civilians to take any meaningful counter-action.
President Trump, however, holds the distinction of taking military action after a chemical attack killed at least 80 people, mainly civilians, in two Syrian towns a year ago. He punished the Syrians by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Al Shayrat airfield from which the Sarin-nerve gas attacks were launched. The attack destroyed considerable aircraft and equipment.
Trump has made it clear that both the Russians and the Iranians share responsibility with Assad for the latest attack on the rebel-held town of Douma near Damascus. About 40 people died in the attack, according to still-unconfirmed reports, and many more, especially children, are being treated for chemical exposure.
There is significant photographic evidence of the suffering of the children, although according to the President, the area is sealed off by the Syrian army and remains inaccessible. The President has called for access to provide medical help for the survivors.
There is no doubt President Trump will take action. The question is, what should he do?
The easiest solution would be to launch an aerial attack on the Syrian army or air force, or both. If the administration takes this step, it’s unlikely to have any long-term impact on the Syrian civil war, which is looking more like a Russian-Iranian-Assad victory. The consequences of any such attack will no doubt bring more suffering to civilians caught in the middle.
But there are other steps that could be taken to discourage this kind of behavior in future.
On the military side, these steps might include attacks on Syria’s military command centers or the regime’s political centers. These targets have not been hit in recent years by the United States and its coalition partners, nor by Israel, which has repeatedly been provoked by Iranian missiles launched from Syria by Hezbollah terrorists.
Bringing the attack directly to the perpetrators of the chemical assault could be the one message they truly understand.
Trump also has to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, making it clear that Russia must stop providing intelligence services to those who use poisons, including nerve gas. Putin must be convinced to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. While the likely Russian reaction will be to deny any culpability, a response like this is unacceptable and will endanger any chance the Russians have of working out acceptable deals on sensitive issues such as arms control or a Ukrainian settlement.
Trump does not need any encouragement to be tough against Syria, Iran and Russia. If the Syrians thought they would get away with yet another chemical attack because President Trump wants to get out of Syria, they badly miscalculated. Did Putin also make yet another blunder?