A version of this article was published at The Sunday Express
Britain joined the United States and France in a round of punitive military strikes in Syria on Friday night. The Coalition was retaliating for a poison gas attack by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Duma area of Damascus on 7 April. The three targets the Allies went after were related to his chemical weapons program. This was a just operation that upheld the norms of the international system, but there are disturbing signs that it will not be linked to a course correction in Syria.
Assad began using chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) in December 2012, about a year after the peaceful uprising morphed into an armed rebellion. CWMD was used five times before the massive Sarin nerve agent attack near Damascus on 21 August 2013 that murdered 1,400 people and nearly brought American action against Assad.
A year earlier, President Barack Obama had drawn a “red line” around CWMD. Obama’s advisors were horrified. Obama had begun secret talks with Assad’s patron, Iran, weeks before, and Tehran made clear it would scupper a deal over their nuclear-weapons program if Assad was harmed.
In the event, the Russians got Obama to cancel the strikes in exchange for a promise to rid Syria of CWMD. The deal made Assad—the man who assisted the Islamic State (ISIS) for a decade against us in Iraq—a partner in disarmament. Western-aligned rebels were betrayed; the extremists gained ground. Obama says he is “very proud of this moment”.
Assad switched to chlorine, which has been employed an average of once-a-week for the last five years. These attacks tended to kill in the single digits. Assad’s resort to nerve agent again in Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 provoked the first deliberate American attack on the Assad regime, a 59-missile volley of Tomahawks against the Shayrat airbase from which the attack had been launched.
The Douma atrocity on 7 April, which killed more than 30 people, might well have been solely a chlorine attack, which creates an interesting political dynamic where the stated “red line” is the use of nerve agent and the de facto trigger for action is the scale of death. The U.S. has refused to clearly answer whether chlorine attacks will now bring a military response.
Friday night’s strikes were minimal but achieved some important objectives. Most importantly, it reinforced an international norm that had been fraying. It is true that Assad has largely taken the measure of Western “red lines”—and in this case is certainly a net victor: he terrorised a particularly stubborn rebel enclave into submission at little cost. Nonetheless, if Assad was assured total impunity, with no possibility of serious reprisals, widescale use would be made of the most lethal chemicals, severely elevating the death toll. There were moments in the last week the regime feared it had incited a Western attack that would target the regime military-security system itself; keeping that fear alive is worthwhile in humanitarian and strategic terms.
The Pentagon briefing on Saturday described the effects of the strikes and future plans. The U.S. says it hopes to “put real steam behind” the moribund Geneva peace process, though the U.S. would not be getting involved in the civil war, would remain focused on ISIS, and has no plans to topple Assad. Obama’s attempt to conduct a counterterrorism war separate from the underlying conflict is the root of the West’s failure in Syria, and it seems Trump intends to continue that path.