A year ago, I talked about the decision made by Donald Trump to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase in response to a reported sarin gas attack in Al Sheikhoun in Ghouta. This year, similar events played out. On Friday, April 13, 2018, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States launched over 100 missiles on targeted sites in Syria in response to another chemical attack in Douma that reportedly happened on April 7.
According to U.S. officials, the allied forces targeted Syrian research facilities, one in Damascus and two near Homs. Defense Secretary James Mattis said this was a one-time thing, but the United States wanted to severely hamper Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to research, develop, and deploy chemical weapons.
Before this latest attack, Donald Trump expressed a reluctance to strike.
At a March 29, 2018 speech in Richfield, Ohio that the United States would “be coming out of Syria … very soon.” That same month, Trump told reporters at a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the United States was only in Syria to defeat ISIS.
On April, Trump promised he would provide a response to the reported chemical attack within 24 to 48 hours. He seemed to waver a bit, but he responded forcefully to a Russian warning of retaliation and ultimately approved the April 13 airstrike.
Before this strike was approved, there was a thundering debate about what should be done. Unfortunately, the loudest voices are in favor of an escalation in Syria. This will be part of a series of posts dealing with Syria, but right now, I want to stick to the facts and reports.
A Recap of the Events Leading up to the Strike
There is a lot of news I needed to catch up on, but here are some of the highlights in Syria since that April 2017 strike.
On Thursday, November 9, 2017, Syria Declared Victory over ISIS as Albu Kamal, the last stronghold of the terrorist group, was captured by pro-Syrian forces. There were still side battles going on around the town and the whereabouts of some terrorist leaders (like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself caliph and last made a recording in September) was unknown. However, but the capture of Albu Kamal signaled the end of the three-year war in Syria.
On Wednesday, January 17, 2018, then-United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to an audience hosted at Stanford University by the Hoover Institution. During his address, Tillerson outlined the ongoing U.S. policy for dealing with Syria. He announced that the United States would maintain a presence in Syria indefinitely. So far, the U.S. involvement includes some 2,000 ground troops who are there to assist Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Tillerson also said that the United States was pushing for a peace plan that excluded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Among the concerns, the U.S. had was the Iranian presence in the war in Syria. Tillerson accused Iran of supporting Hezbollah and filtering in fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries. Iran’s presence was the driving force for continued U.S. involvement.
Another concern (which wasn’t necessarily stated by Tillerson) was U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces in Afrin. The U.S. is allied with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) but states the YPG was not specifically involved in the fight against ISIS. Also, there was some conflict between the Pentagon and the Defense Department where the YPG was concerned; the former expressed a desire to keep working with the Kurds in Afrin while the Defense Department was noncommittal.
Complicating matters was Turkey’s stand. Turkey considers YPG a close terrorist ally of Turkey’s PKK, a Kurdish political party which has been designated a terrorist group. Earlier Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said that any action by the U.S. to help the Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish border would damage the NATO allies’ relationship beyond repair. Shortly after Cavusolgu made that statement, Turkey invaded Syria in order to take out the YPG.
In February, a clash between mostly-Russian mercenaries and a coalition of U.S. and Kurdish forces in the Deir Ezzor region of Syrian resulted in the deaths of over 200 mercenaries. This was the largest clash between the U.S. and Russian fighters since the end of the Cold War.
According to reports, the mercenaries were approaching a base that was controlled by the U.S. The Russian government claimed to have nothing to do with the mercenaries, but they were reportedly working for a “shadowy” organization called Wagner (which is the Russian answer to Blackwater). Wagner may have been funded in part by Syria and employed to protect oil interests in the country in exchange for oil concessions.
The clash was considered a real scandal because of the sparsity of information from the Russian military. Russian analysts felt that Russia needed to provide more information and take stronger action because Russian nationals were killed in the clash.
It seems that Russia was loath to escalate with the United States, but the former said that the latter’s presence in Syria was illegal. Syria called the clash “barbaric.”
Around the same time this clash happened, Israel carried out aerial assaults against Iranian and Syrian bases after Iran shot down an Israeli F-16 near Palmyra. Six mostly Syrian fighters were killed. Israel had carried out airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian since 2015, but this was the largest clash, following the first time an Israeli plane was shot down. Israel would later be blamed for an April 9 attack that resulted in the deaths of seven Iranian soldiers.
Gas Attack History in Syria
Let’s back up a minute and look at the timeline of reported gas attacks in Syria. There have been so many reports gas attacks in the country since the civil war started in 2011, but the information surrounding each attack has differed, depending on the source.
From 2012-2013, there were at least 8 reported chemical attacks in Syria, with four occurring between March and April of 2013. The August 21, 2013, chemical attack near Damascus was critical, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was blamed days after the attack. At that point, American President Barack Obama was being challenged on his words from a year earlier as he told a press corps that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” and thus change his calculus in dealing with Syria.
According to U.S. intelligence at the time, as many as 1,400 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack. However, different agencies and international aid groups put the number between 200-600 casualties.
Ultimately, President Obama decided against a strike in Syria. He was derided for not putting his foot down, but when given the chance, Congress voted against a strike.
Who’s Chemical Weapons?
In May 2013, the United Nations’ independent commission of inquiry report concluded that there was a possibility that the “rebel” forces in Syria may have used Sarin gas. In an interview on Swiss-Italian television, Carla Del Ponte said that the commission spoke to civilians, doctors, and field hospitals in neighboring countries and found no proof that the Syrian government had used sarin. The Syrian government and the opposition had accused each other of carrying out three chemical attacks between December 2012 and March 2013: one in Homs (December), one near Aleppo (March), and one near Damascus (also in March). The independent commission’s report was separate from the investigation called for by then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, the latter of which had stalled.
Assad’s Stated Compliance
On September 17, 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad admitted that he had chemical weapons while speaking with Russia’s Channel 4 and that reaffirmed information while giving an interview for Fox News. Assad said that although he was in possession of the weapons, his military did not deploy them in an August 2013 sarin gas attack. He said it wasn’t feasible for his military to use it and they had no reason to use it since the military was advancing and it wasn’t losing the battle. Instead, Assad said the opposition could have deployed it since it had the means (he said sarin could be produced in a kitchen) and that 80%-90% of those fighting against the Syrian military was aligned with Al Qaida and other terrorists.
Assad said that he was joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and getting rid of his stockpile. However, he said it would take over a year, cost at least $1 billion, and harm the environment. When asked if Obama should trust him, Assad said, Obama shouldn’t, but it was important that the Syrian people were able to trust their president.
Throughout the second half of the interview, Assad was asked how he would respond to hypothetical scenarios, like what would happen should the Syrian government win the war or if Russia decided to stop supporting Assad. The Syrian president consistently stressed that it was up to the Syrian people to decide what happened to the country politically.
The interview was conducted by Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Fox News’ Greg Palkot. You can see Parts 1 and 2 below:
Doubts About Assad’s Guilt?
In a long-form article for the London Review of Books, Seymour M. Hersh discussed the events surrounding and following the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. As Hersh suspected, Obama’s decision not to launch a strike in Syria might have been influenced by contradictory intelligence.
According to a former intelligence officer who talked to Hersh, there were people within the U.S. intelligence community who were loath to increase the United States’ involvement in Syria, let alone send troops there. They were wary of the costs and the level of effort required and they had intelligence that told them that militants had the capability to make and use sarin gas.
Also, while the IC’s ability to pick up encrypted communications from the Syrian military was severely limited, the sensors the IC had in Syria to warn them of chemical manufacturing by the military did not indicate their production by Syrian forces close to the August 21 attack. The sensors did pick up an exercise by the Syrian military that involved chemicals, but it may have been just that: an exercise, which most other militaries do.
The intelligence briefings for August 20-23, 2013 did not indicate an advanced warning of the chemical attack, namely by the Syrian government. Still, the Obama administration fudged intelligence reports to push a narrative that supported the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible. The press played along because it only reported from government reports that supported the claim and buried all contradictory (technical) information.
Along with press outlets, some lawmakers went by what the government fed them and thus supported a military strike in Syria. Intelligence officials who supported some action against Assad also relied on news reports (they had informed) and social media to support their intelligence.
The reported gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun was a critical moment in the young Trump administration. A few days after that suspected sarin gas attack occurred, Trump made the decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles on targets at the Shayrat air base. Few injuries were initially reported, and no major damage was done to the air base.
In September, the joint investigation conducted by the United Nations and An Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for the sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun that was carried out on April 4, 2017. The same report also concluded that an airstrike by the United States on a mosque complex in March 2017 was illegal.
In the Syrian government’s defense: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has maintained that he did not order a gas attack, referring to an agreement brokered by the United States and Russia under which Assad was to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. Also, Russia said that the Syrian military hit a chemical weapons factory, which caused the gas to be released.
In the U.S.’s defense: The U.S. said that it was targeting Al Qaida militants in the village of Jinah and that the response was proportional.
On Friday, January 30, 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that there was no proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used Sarin gas on his own people in April 2017. However, Mattis said that there was proof that Assad had chemical weapons and used them during the Syrian War.
The previous day (Thursday, January 29, 2018), Trump’s administration accused Assad of using “new kinds of weapons” to deliver deadly chemical attacks. Administration officials also said that said that Trump had not ruled out military action in Syria and the United States would look for ways to hold the users of chemical weapons accountable.
On April 7, 2018, there was a reported chemical attack in Douma, a town in eastern Ghouta. Initial reports put the death toll at 150, but the number was placed at 76 dead and over 1,000 affected. The types of chemicals used in the attack were not immediately identified, but a mix of chlorine and sarin was suspected.
The area that was reportedly hit was one of the last opposition-held strongholds in Syria, as it was controlled by Jaish al-Islam. Days later, the group and civilians were evacuated from the area.
It should be noted that inspections by an international team were scheduled the day before the allied strikes took place. But some time afterward, the inspectors were being held back by the Russians and the Syrian government. The Russians claimed that the U.N. team didn’t have proper clearances, then claimed security concerns. Inspectors were only able to walk away with samples from Douma around April 21.
Russia and Syria’s Claims
Was this a real chemical attack? Weeks before, Russian officials warned of a “false-flag” event.
On Tuesday, March 13, 2018, Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces, said that Russia had information that “rebels” were planning a fake chemical attack in eastern Ghouta. In turn, Gerasimov said that the United States would use that fake attack as a pretext for launching more strikes for targets in Syria; specifically, the United States might target the government quarter in Damascus, where Russian military advisers, Russian military police, and Russian ceasefire monitors are working. Gerasimov said that if any strikes threatened or harmed any Russian military personnel that Russia would launch a counterattack and seek retaliation.
Shortly after the April 7, event, Russia and Syria said that the attack was “fabricated.”
Are they right? Well …
The only proof we had of the April 7 chemical attack didn’t come from conventional news reports but from social media streams after the fact and information given to the U.S. from the White Helmets. There were videos showing part of a used rocket in a house and those of panicked people being splashed with water. The video of the people being treated was later authenticated.
Are We Leading Up the World War III?
Everyone’s fear is that one wrong move by the most powerful nations could lead to World War III. That was a thought that crept into my head after last year’s strikes and this one, but things calmed down somewhat when the smoke settled. However, the continued presence of the United States in Syria and its stance on Iran promise to inflame tensions in the Middle East and to kick off other events that contribute to a vicious cycle.
There are numerous regional and geopolitical concerns, even if the Syrian government ultimately prevails.
- The West opposes Assad’s continued leadership.
- The West also opposes Russia’s involvement in Syria. The U.K. has recently got involved following the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter. That poisoning was immediately blamed on the Kremlin.
- Stateless Kurds are being assaulted by Turkey and their brethren in Iraq are also being threatened.
- Syria and Iran will have to deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the United States supports the latter.
- Although France got involved, Macron has expressed a desire for the United States to keep the Iranian Nuclear Deal intact. That deal was already being threatened by Donald Trump, but now Iran’s president is striking a defiant tone. In mid-April, Hassan Rouhani declared that his country would build any weapon it saw fit in order to defend itself.
I don’t know if this will eventually lead to a full-scale war, but it means that there will be prolonged battles in the foreseeable future.
Until Next Time …
This is the end of my news-sharing portion. The other Syria posts will be mostly opinion, but I will include some more research I did on this topic.