The Questions No One is Asking about Assad’s Chemical Attacks

There is much speculation and conspiratorial theorizing still ongoing on about the chemical attack by Assad (no doubt, with tacit approval, if not assistance from the Russians and Iranians).

The discussion about the seemingly successful airstrikes against three sites related to the production and storage of the chemical weapons by the US, UK, and France (with open approval from Saudi Arabia and Israel, and faux indignation by Russia and Iran) is likewise largely speculative. It is known whether, with the coming of Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Bolton, US will develop a more comprehensive strategy in Syria or not. The airstrikes, however, seemed to be a measure specifically developed in response to the chemical attack against civilian population, with the purported reasoning being the red line on the use of chemical weapons due to US national security interest in limiting the use of such tactics.

Of course, if that was a one-off response, to many, it may appear insignificant except perhaps potentially leading to greater escalation of hostilities. After all, we have attacked a sovereign state without a direct attack on our own interests or our allies. Others criticize the implementation of this policy in that we waited too long and were too open about our intentions and targets, giving the adversaries time and space to remove everything that they  needed gone. We may have new evidence of their possession of new weapons, but they still largely retained their lethal capabilities and will be sure to use them again at an appropriate time. In short, the view is that little has been accomplished outside foreign policy “virtue signaling” towards the American, British, and French base, which wants to see strong leaders at the helm, who also keep to their promises. Assad, however, has not been displaced, nor suffered any long term effect. Still others bring to mind the botched attempt to remove Assad from power, which led to the ongoing civil war (US running guns from Libya to Syria, with Saudi backing, during the Obama administration, which has backfired spectacularly).

All of these observations may be accurate, but they also miss the bigger picture here. And that is: why did Assad chose to continue testing US resolve with the use of chemical weapons, when, in the past, the US showed willingness to conduct similar airstrikes under similar circumstances? Furthermore, while the US was busy with this seemingly restrained air strike, one of the biggest Iranian weapons factories was destroyed, only a short while after another such attack, which has been widely attributed to Israel. Middle Easterners themselves, when asked, while happy at the Trump administration’s willingness to take lives of Syrian civilians into consideration, are also incredulous that the chemical attacks, which on the whole kill far fewer people than conventional weapons, have drawn such disproportionate attention, while the majority of the war-related brutality has received very limited coverage, sympathy, and no response from the administration.

First, there is a farcical element to the series of events. Assad’s forces (with Russia’s support) use forbidden chemical weapons against civilians (after Russia lied about all those weapons being removed); US retaliates with air strikes, destroys some capabilities. Putin does not escalate at that particular moment, but brings much sound and fury to the UN Securiy Council; where nothing happens. US Congress gives a half-hearted constitutional review to whether or not the airstrikes not aimed at US troops is or is not an act of war, subject to review under the War Powers Act; ultimately, everyone is mostly ok with what happened, because the air strikes were limited in scope, and were targeting legitimate targets which contribute to regional threats and instability. Everyone moves on, Assad continues consolidating his territorial reconquista, lives to fight another day, and at some random point in time attacks civilians yet again. That tells us a few things:

First, our airstrikes do not have a deterrent effect on anyone. Iranians continue to build bases; Russians continue to support bad actors; Assad continues retaking territory and attacking civilians. No one changed their pattern of behavior as a result of our very limited responses to narrowly defined red lines. Second, we see that Erdogan supports these measures. In light of our recent pattern of courtship around Turkey, is it not safe to speculate that at least part of the reason for these otherwise possibly ineffectual airstrikes were aimed to strengthen our alliance with Erdogan? Third, Israel’s attack on t he Iranian air base in Syria is far more serious in destroying the enemy’s capabilities than our prevaricating until Assad’s forces managed to do a lot of clean-up. Could it be that at least one of the reasons for the way we conducted this operation and for deliberate and public discussion has been to give cover to Israel to quietly prepare an attack on a far more concerning existential threat?

Fourth, what are the calculations of our enemies in this situation? From Assad’s perspective, this may be a mere cost-benefit analysis. The value of regained territory at the expense of civilians is greater than whatever limited damage from the US-led airstrikes, for instance. Alternatively, it could be that the chemical weapons are a very small part of Assad’s capabilities and intended weapons of choice, and for that reason he does not actually mind all that much if a portion comes under attack. Meanwhile, the big news story that is getting overshadowed by the hyped up and publicly drawn out timeline, is the fact that Russia is delivering advanced missile defense systems to Syria, and that although the US and others managed to strike all three targets, the majority of the missiles (apparently approximately 70%) actually failed. What that means in terms of costs should be discussed by military experts, but it certainly detracts from the US shining moment to some extent.

Fifth – it could be that the chemical attacks are a deliberate distraction. Assad, Putin, and the ayatollahs know fully well the predictable reaction of the administration. The administration had announced its attention in advance, it had carried them out in advance in exactly the same way, and there was no reason to believe it would do anything other than what it promised and what it had done under similar circumstances. For that reason, if there is anything significantly more sinister going in Syria, limiting US response by attracting attention to a specific operation, where the outcome is easy to predict, and therefore to control, is the optimal way to ensure that the US will feel it has paid its dues to humanitarian considerations, and have it lie low for a while. In other words, the chemical attacks, in fact, may be a deliberate provocation, not to test the US resolve but to distract from other things, which may include smuggling of advanced weaponry or sophisticated maneuvers (such as work related to building the land corridor to Lebanon) that has not attracted a great deal of attention with the news or with the policy makers.

The last time the US audiences heard anything about the work on the land corridor, was one US general promising to work to stop progress on that build up with the help of a Kurdish militia. However, the Kurds have been largely preoccupied with PKK and with being kicked out and attacked by Turkey from/in Iraq – and there has been no sign of any other action being taken on that front. The land corridor is far more important to Iran than any number of destroyed military bases. Likely, Iran would not host its most advanced weaponry so close to the surface that Israel could easily destroy it from the air; the conventional less significant weapons are relatively easy to replace. far more important is creating a physical capability to transport these weapons easily from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq and IRan and back, and of course, to allow the influx of the Hezbullahi elements in the future. For that reason, Iranian and Hezbullah outrage at Israeli air strikes will be necessarily limited to verbal threats. Neither can afford to embroil in direct confrontations with Israel, while much more strategic work is still in progress. That is also the reason, Israel, despite praising President Trump’s airstrikes, is also expressing concern that the administration, feeling that the mission has been fully accomplished, will not be motivated to develop a comprehensive strategy for its continuous presence in Syria, or worse yet, will advance its plans to withdraw completely, leaving Israel to go to bad at defending itself on multiple fronts mostly alone.

None of these developments affect Russia, which, having suffered no serious consequences for its recent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK (not counting the reciprocal expulsion of spies, soon to be replaced by a new set, not all that different from the old), is not directly penalized by US airstrikes. The warnings keep accumulating but there has been no action taken against Russia on the basis of its contribution to the destabilization of the Middle East; for some reason, that portion of Russia’s portfolio has been completely ignored, except in war of words. The most serious incident with Russia involved the US killing of several hundred mercenaries which engaged in direct hostilities; whether that was a miscalculation on Putin’s part or an incidental loss of control over the situation  has not, to this date, been publicly established. However, Putin seems to prefer to avoid direct confrontations with the allies, aside from the usual sabre-rattling at the UN and in the media, preferring, instead to focus on the more manageable tasks, such as pursuing his long-term goals of reestablishing the Syrian regime’s control over its territory, building alliances with Turkey and other regional actors, and cementing Russia’s role in the Middle East – although to this date, there is yet to be an example of how Russia has actually made the situation any better for the local civilians in any places it has positioned itself; Russia’s strongest loyalties seem to reside with bloodthirsty despots.

Turkey, thus far, has come out by far the biggest winner in this situation, at least in terms of meeting its public goals. Despite an agreement with Abadi,  concerning the removal of PKK from Iraq, Turkey entered Iraq and launched an attack, which killed and injured a number of Kurds. None of that has met with any international attention or condemnation, despite the fact that a state ally just attacked another state ally, while also going after a non-state ally. And with the US hands, Erdogan managed to strike a blow at least to the ego of its regional rival, while also finding common ground with the US to continue stringing along the White House  while advancing Erdogan’s agenda at the expense of US interests in the region. Once the dust over the airstrikes settled, it may indeed become apparent that while the Western trio of allies has indeed succeeded at PR with the anti-Assad activists and its own bases, it has not done much to advance long-term goals in reigning in Assad’s abuses, or countering Iran’s and Russia’s ambition. At that point there will be only two questions left to ask:

1 Was it worth it?

2 What should we have done instead?

To save the trouble of asking the third obvious question, the clear suggestion here is that the US should take the time to reevaluate Russia’s, Iran’s, and Assad’s other activities and to detect additional repetitive patterns that will help prevent and perhaps counter future chemical attacked, understand better Syria’s chemical capabilities, after the air strikes, and figure out whether there are other serious developments that are being ignored. Until now, thanks to the help of the French, the allies have been able to get challenging but accurate information about post-factum analysis of Assad’s role in those attacks. Perhaps in the future, the intelligence gathering effort should focus on understanding the enemy’s intentions, as much as capabilities.

by Irina Tsukerman