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Situation Assessment 16 April, 2018

The April 2018 Missile Strikes on Syria: Responding to the Douma Gas Attack?

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

A tripartite coalition formed of the United States, France and Great Britain launched a missile strike against Syrian military sites in various parts of the country on Friday, 13 April, 2018. A salvo of over 100 missiles were launched at military targets in and around the Syrian capital and to the southwest of Homs (in central Syria). The strike was a calculated response precipitated by what the Trump White House referred to as an infraction of international norms by the Assad regime, and specifically, the use the regime use chemical weapons in civilian areas controlled by the Syrian opposition.

The Douma Chemical Strike

This most recent escalation in the Syrian crisis can be traced to leaked images and video footage of Syrian civilians in the town of Douma within the wider Eastern Ghouta region—the majority of them children—killed or writhing in pain as the result of what appeared to be the use of a chemical weapon. The apparent chemical attack by the Syrian regime took place on Saturday 7 April, 2018. At the time, the opposition stronghold was in the midst of preparations for the evacuation of fighters loyal to the Islamist “Jaish Al Islam” faction and their families, in accordance with an agreement arrived at between that group and the Russian military. The chemical attack, which led to the deaths of scores of innocents and left many more in need of medical care, seemed to have been a measure taken by the Assad regime to expedite the withdrawal of opposition fighters as well as a generally punitive measure against the Eastern Ghouta, which has long been an opposition stronghold situated close to the capital. The move also resulted in the unintended consequence of provoking international condemnation for using banned chemical weapons against civilian areas.

Following the wide dissemination of images of the suffering of Syrian civilians, the US president vowed to retaliate against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. President Trump initially promised to respond within a period of 24 to 48 hours. One notable development during the delay in the response was a consensus among the tripartite coalition to take action, and their willingness to hold Moscow culpable for its failure to uphold a 2013 agreement which purportedly stripped the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons stockpiles following a similar attack on the civilians of Ghouta that year, which took the lives 800 Syrian civilians.

In this most recent attack, Trump held his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin personally responsible for the crimes of the Syrian regime. The US Defense Secretary James Mattis took the same line, accusing Russia of failing to carry out its obligation to strip the Assad regime of its chemical weapons stockpiles. The US also sponsored a UN Security Council Resolution, revised from an earlier version first proposed and eventually vetoed by Russia in March, to investigate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. Washington was soon joined by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who insisted that the Assad regime and its backers in Moscow should be punished for the crime of using chemical weapons in Douma. Last month, France’s UN representative, Francois Delattre, joined this chorus, explicitly singling out Russia as being in the unique position of being both a permanent member of the UN Security Council and having leverage on the Damascus regime[1]. Remarkably, none of the countries which have led the response to the regime’s use of chemical brought up the mass-scale slaughter of the Syrian civilian population through the use of conventional weapons, the regime’s use of forced displacement as a weapon of war against its own population nor, pointedly, did they mention the need to remove the Assad regime.

The willingness of this tripartite coalition to single out Russia for blame did, however, serve to raise tensions between Moscow and these three permanent members of the UN Security Council. Russia vetoed an American draft resolution to deploy chemical weapons investigators to Syria—marking the twelfth occasion on which Russia vetoed Security Council action in Syria since the conflict began, and the sixth time it did so specifically in relation to chemical weapons use. Yet Moscow failed to secure the backing needed to have two drafts of its own intended to counter the US draft on the use of chemical weapons in Douma. Instead, Moscow was left posturing, and threatening to shoot down any missiles which targeted sites in Syria through its Ambassador in Lebanon. This provoked the US president to tweet “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it![2]

Trump’s Motives: the Pentagon’s Cautious Calculus

Tweets by the American president revealed a genuine desire on the part of the White House to strike the Assad regime hard, aiming to decisively end the possibility of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons against civilians living in opposition-held areas. While Trump appeared to be willing to extend his retaliation to the Syrian regime’s backers in Iran and Russia, the Department of Defense showed more caution. In testimony before Congress, Secretary of Defense James Mattis attested that, while accepting that there was a chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians, the US was “looking for the actual evidence”. Mattis added that the US was in no position to enter what he described as a Syrian “civil war” and maintained that Washington’s priority remained the defeat of ISIL—in other terms, Washington was not about to engage in regime change in Syria[3].

While Trump’s reactions to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime seem to be motivated by electoral considerations, the Department of Defense instead was thinking along clearly strategic lines, and constrained by the fears of becoming embroiled in a conflict with Iran and Russia on Syrian soil alongside fears of becoming involved in an internal Syrian conflict. With increasingly expanding attention to Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 presidential elections which brought Trump to the White House, and uncertainty surrounding the his own personal connections with Putin, the president was able to trumpet the strike against Syrian regime targets in an attempt to elevate himself above suspicion. Indeed, Trump went further and raised expectations with his bombast that the US was prepared to strike not only targets associated with the Syrian regime, but also Russian sites. In reality, Trump had no intention of doing either of these two things, but merely of responding to calls from within his own Republican Party that he take a firmer stance against Russian aggression across multiple flashpoints.

The need for the Republican president to appear tough on Syria is especially intense at present, with the mid-term elections to the US House of Representatives fast approaching, and the very real prospect that his party may lose control of the lower house of the US federal legislative body. Loss of Republican control of Congress would make potential efforts by the Democrats to impeach Trump—on the basis of alleged foreign support for his election campaign—much more likely. Trump was also animated by a desire to live true to his belief that he was a more decisive, forceful president than his predecessor Obama who failed to act on a promise to retaliate against an earlier use of chemical weapons by Assad (in 2013). It was this personal motive which similarly drove Trump’s earlier decision to strike at the Shuairat Air Base in April of 2017 [4]. The seeming failure of that strike a year earlier to achieve its aims meant that Trump ensured that the latter retaliation was on a much larger scale.

This contrasts with the cold stratagem of the Pentagon. While US military planners agreed on the need to send a signal which would deter the future use of chemical weapons either by the Syrian regime or in other places—one similar example would be the use of a nerve agent to poison a Russian exile living in the UK earlier this year—the American military is equally adamant that it not be drawn into a conflict with either Russia or Iran on Syrian soil. Ultimately, it was the Pentagon’s way of thinking—which in turn was more aligned with London and Paris as well—won out.

The US Administration also appears to be generally opposed to earlier efforts by other international forces—Russia, Iran and Turkey—to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis through the implementation of “de-escalation zones”, although its opposition to this plan has so far been passive[5]. Increasing coordination between Iran, Turkey and Russia, the three countries backing the “de-escalation zones” is itself a worrying prospect for Washington, particularly given that China may be represented in their upcoming meeting in Tehran.

A Missile Strike “For Show”

The time elapsed between the announcement by President Trump that a missile strike against sites in Syria was forthcoming and the actual firing of the missiles gave the Syrians and their Iranian allies the time needed to take precautions and fortify, avoiding the worst possible outcomes for their military equipment. They had enough time to move some of their military planes to Russian operated bases which would be safe from the strikes. Similarly, the strikes were planned with pinpoint precision, taking care not to hit any Iranian or Russian sites, and in fact concentrating on Syrian chemical weapons research centers and stockpiles. In and around the Damascus Governorate, other sites targeted included the Mazzeh Airbase, headquarters of the feared “Air Force Intelligence Bureau” as well as military sites in the East Qalamoun region as well as the headquarters of 105 Brigade, a part of the Republican Guard, on the outskirts of Damascus. In the Homs Governorate and along the border with Lebanon, a number of missiles hit sites where regime forces as well as fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah where located. Reports indicate that the damage suffered was limited, with no casualties.

Repercussions of the Missile Strike

The factors driving the missile strikes on sites in Syria do not seem to indicate a reversal of the White House’s position on the Syrian conflict. Instead, the US decision to act in Syria appear to be driven by seemingly unrelated issues:

  • The US president’s personal desire to project himself to the American public as a decisive, assertive leader who took action where Obama failed to do so. Trump is signaling, through the strike, that his White House is reversing the roll back of US forces across the globe. He is also using the strikes to dispel any suspicions surrounding Russian influence on his administration following allegations of Russian support during his election campaign.
  • The Pentagon’s desire to display Russian incapacity and humiliate and punish Moscow while simultaneously continuing the efforts to destroy ISIL.
  • American unease surrounding growing cooperation between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara on the Syrian conflict.

Although the strikes earlier this month appear to have been almost purely demonstrative in purpose, serving a symbolic role above all, it remains impossible to rule out further American involvement in Syrian affairs at the moment, whether politically or militarily. In the meantime, the strikes themselves will unlikely deter the regime and its allies from killing more civilians, so long as they take care to do so without the use of chemical weapons. With the recent appointment of John Bolton and Michael Pompeo to Administration posts, future escalations against Russia and Iran are also increasingly likely. Equally, the continuation of the conflict in Syria is only whetting the Israeli appetite for a direct role, one in which it can come face-to-face against Iranian forces and their proxies next door.

 

 

[1] See “Russia can stop the Syrian regime,” published by the French Mission to the United Nations, 12 March, 2018, available online: https://onu.delegfrance.org/Russia-can-stop-the-Syrian-regime

[2] Read Trump’s tweet here: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/984022625440747520; for the statement of Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon, see “Russian envoy to Lebanon: any U.S. missiles fired at Syria will be shot down,” Reuters, 11 April, 2018, available online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-diplomat/russian-envoy-to-lebanon-any-u-s-missiles-fired-at-syria-will-be-shot-down-idUSKBN1HI0PU

[3] For coverage of Mattis’ testimony, see Phil Stewart, Idress Ali, “Mattis: ‘I believe there was a chemical attack in Syria’,” Reuters, 12 April 2018, available online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa/mattis-says-i-believe-there-was-a-chemical-attack-in-syria-idUSKBN1HJ2ES

[4] See, “The Trump White House Reacts to Chemical Weapons Use in Syria,” Situation Assessment Series, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 12 April, 2017, available online: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/The_Trump_White_House_Reacts_to_Chemical_Weapons_Use_in_Syria.aspx

[5] See, “The Astana Agreement: Russia Pre-Empts No-Fly Zones,” Situation Assessment Series, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 10 May, 2017, available online: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/The_Astana_Agreement_Russia_Preempts_NoFly_Zones.aspx