The US and France have talked a big game when it comes to responding to gas attacks in Syria, but in the absence of a broad and coherent Syria policy, can they make a difference?

A year to the day after the United States struck at a Syrian airbase to punish Bashar al Assad for a chemical weapons attack, the regime has suspectedly carried out another devastating chemical atrocity. Signs are that the United States will, again, respond with force, attempting to rescue some part of the fraying international taboo against the use of poison gas. The larger question remains how Assad has gotten away with this for so long—and why murder only with certain categories of munitions prompts retaliation.

What happened?

News of the latest attack began filtering out of Syria just before 1am local time on 8 April. The target was Douma, the remaining pocket of the long-besieged eastern Ghouta zone of the Damascus suburbs. It is confirmed that 43 people were slaughtered, almost all civilians, many of them women and children.

The timing of the attack and its scale unleashed total chaos as people scrambled in the dark to find survivors. Denied even basic supplies, particularly medical equipment, for many years, overcrowded hospitals tried to treat children with what they had to hand—water and asthma inhalers. And on top of that the pro-Assad coalition—the battered remnants of the regime’s army, the Iranian Shia jihadists, and Russia’s air force—targeted the first-responders with artillery and airstrikes.

The primary purpose of such an attack by the Assad regime would be to break the resolve of Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), the powerful group holding the remaining rebel pockets of eastern Ghouta, not least by sapping the morale of the civilians under its rule, and perhaps to circumvent a negotiated settlement by the regime’s Russian ally.

Moscow had been trying to reach a deal to have JAI become local administrators under regime auspices. JAI looked favourably on the proposal since it would struggle to survive a deportation to the north, outside a zone where it is deeply rooted. Neither Assad nor Iran could countenance an agreement that left such a powerful latent foe so close to the capital; a conventional military campaign would have cost Assad dearly and taken weeks if not months. Hours after the gas attack, JAI surrendered and the deportations began.

A political minefield

The Khan Shaykhun attack on 4 April 2017—for which Assad was responsible, as confirmed by France, the United States, and the United Nations—used the nerve agent Sarin. Sarin is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and recognised as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Chlorine has many non-weaponized uses, in sanitation and water purification, and as such its possession is not regulated by the CWC.

This distinction between chlorine and chemicals prohibited under CWC has become a political matter because the US “red line,” issued in August 2012 by President Barack Obama and finally enforced last April by President Donald Trump, refers to the latter. Assad has used chlorine on a large scale both before and after last year’s strike—by some estimates an average of once-a-week since 2013—and the US rested on this distinction to avoid any obligation to respond.

The politicised hair-splitting about Assad’s chemical criminality goes to the heart of why the regime has proceeded with such impunity for so long: Western countries, the US in particular, kept finding ways to avoid imposing costs on Assad for crimes against humanity.

Before the massive Sarin attack that killed 1,400 people in eastern Ghouta on 21 August 2013, nerve agents had been used at least five times in Syria. Well aware these “small-scale” attacks had taken place, the Obama administration refused to act to deter any escalation. Under tremendous pressure from the press and allied governments, the US acknowledged that such attacks had taken place in June 2013, and ostensibly began providing lethal support to the Syrian opposition as a consequence. Those weapons did not arrive until after the Ghouta atrocity two months later.

Eventually, Obama struck a deal with the Russians to spare Assad retribution for the Ghouta attack, and make the dictator into a partner in disarmament, a decision he says he is “very proud” of.

Given the widespread misperception that the US tried to overthrow Assad, it might seem strange that Obama brokered an agreement that meant the US had a vested interest in Assad’s survival. But in fact this is consistent with Obama’s policy, which never seriously tried to remove Assad. To the contrary, as a silent condition of the Iran nuclear deal, Obama extended Assad a security guarantee. The CIA-run program to support the mainstream rebellion was never allowed to become strategically significant. It was “a box-checking exercise,” as one former Obama official noted.

With the US-Russia deal in place, the appeasement of Assad and Moscow continued to obscure what all sentient people knew going in: there was not a chance Assad would cede his chemical weapons. Once they were gone, the interest in his remaining in power to help get rid of them evaporated. Secretary of State John Kerry declared in July 2014 that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” a claim repeated as late as January 2017 by Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, eighteen months after it has been conclusively falsified.

This time around

In Douma, it is not yet clear what poison was dropped on civilians. Nobody doubts chlorine was used and the US is said to have made an initial finding that nerve agent was used. This is plausible: from the first days of Assad using chemical weapons in 2012, he mixed nerve agents with less lethal chemicals, including tear gas. This use of cocktails makes the job for medical responders more difficult—so more people die—and it confuses investigators. On the available evidence, though, it is also possible that only chlorine was used on Saturday night and an odd confluence of conditions produced an unusually deadly result.

That result, however, is likely enough to trigger a military response from the United States, and perhaps France, who have each in their way put themselves out on a limb with regard to mass-casualty gas attacks in Syria, regardless of the specific substance used.

Trump referred to Assad as an “animal” and promised to impose a “big price” on him on Sunday. Hours later, around 4am Syria time on 9 April, Israel launched a series of airstrikes, attacking the T4 base in the eastern desert that is home to some of the Iranian operatives who effectively control Assad’s security sector. Iran has admitted to four casualties. The immediate provocation for this was staged a few days ago by Assad and Iran, but it is part of a broader strategic development. Israel tried to work through Russia to limit Iran’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in Syria, and when that proved hopeless has begun acting alone.

Crucially, Israel coordinated with the US and did not bother to warn the Russians ahead of time, a stern rebuke to the narrative that the Israelis operate by Russia’s say-so in Syria and in considerable coordination with the Kremlin. There is a “deconfliction” mechanism simply to try to avoid collisions, though it, too, has fallen into abeyance.

The Russians, having been unable to protect Assad from Trump, made a major attempt at the end of last year to portray themselves as victorious and in command of the situation in Syria. Cracks appeared in this edifice nearly immediately, not least as Turkey began to assert herself in northern Syria. Shortly after came a round of Israeli strikes and a US force-defence operation that killed and wounded 300 Russians—all of it without reply. Yet Russia is again turning up the rhetoric about “World War Three”—some of its advocates speaking of a confrontation akin to the Cuban missile crisis if Trump attacks Assad again. This is all nonsense: Russia cannot even control its own client regime in Syria, never mind pose a serious challenge to the United States.

The US president’s rhetoric on Monday—and background reports—suggest we are on the eve of another US attack on the Assad regime. If this is to be effective it must include not only destroying chemical weapons sites; degrading if not eliminating the regime’s air force should be a primary target, and strikes against other key parts of Assad’s killing-machine and the Iranian militia infrastructure should be considered.

The question for the US in Syria has always been one of will, not capabilities, and remains so, even with Russia in theatre. “Solving” Syria is something that will take many decades. Realistic policies in the present will seek to manage; to push the trendlines in a more positive direction. If the US raises the cost for war crimes, weakens the pro-Assad coalition, and amends its policy to bring its allies onto the same page for a project of stabilisation and strategic competition with the Iranian regime, that would meet the bill.

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