A version of this article was published in CapX
The United States and its allies, Britain and France, launched over 100 missiles at the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the early hours of 14 April. This was retaliation for the regime’s use of poison gas in the town of Douma, east of the capital, Damascus, exactly a week earlier, which massacred at least 43 people and wounded 500 more. The military strikes were an important signal and will likely be some deterrent against the future use of chemical weapons in Syria, but ultimately this was another missed opportunity by the West to meaningfully affect the course of the war.
BACKGROUND IN GHOUTA
By late 2012, after the street protests of a year before had spiralled into an armed revolt under deliberate pressure from the regime and its Iranian patrons, East Ghouta became the most threatening rebel enclave, on the doorstep of Assad’s capital city. With the regime’s recapture of al-Utayba in April 2013, a siege was locked in place that held for the next five years.
The regime’s siege, reinforced by the Iranian revolution’s Lebanese branch, Hizballah, was so suffocating it led to civilians starving to death. The artillery bombardment and airstrikes were relentless. Frustration with East Ghouta’s stubborn resistance led to Assad’s first major attack with chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) on 21 August 2013, murdering 1,400 people in a morning.
The Syrian rebellion has been strategically defeated in no small part because it was unable, with rare exceptions, of which East Ghouta was one, to form governance structures that gave people who had defected in their minds an actual alternative for them and their families. The regime understood this and blitzed zones that fell outside its control—except, for cynical reasons, those areas taken by the Islamic State (ISIS).
The rebel group Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) spearheaded the governance project in East Ghouta. JAI is rooted in the Salafism that shapes the culture and norms of Douma and areas around it. This is a doctrine quite distinct from the jihadism of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and also separates JAI from a group like Ahrar al-Sham, which—whatever the truth of its claims to have evolved—has its origins in the world of Islamist militancy. A practical difference: Christians in JAI-held areas were protected.
JAI’s attempt to consolidate rebel governance under its own power led to an authoritarian system of rule, including the suppression of independent opposition activists, and other abuses. JAI’s hegemonic ambitions also provoked infighting that weakened the rebels’ ability to defend the enclave. Once the regime failed to conquer East Ghouta, it moved to containment and even a form of co-existence, with intermediaries and the elite from both sides profiteering from the smuggling networks into East Ghouta that prevented mass-starvation.
In 2017, the Syrian war virtually paused as all sides turned on ISIS’s remaining strongholds in the east of the country. America wanted to end ISIS’s statelet as quickly as possible; the Assad coalition wanted the political benefits of attacking ISIS and to prevent American allies taking as much territory as possible. In February 2018, with ISIS’s caliphate virtually destroyed, and having temporarily neutralised other fronts through the “de-escalation” mechanism, the pro-Assad coalition was able to concentrate its resources on East Ghouta, turning from containment to liquidation.
THE ATTACK IN DOUMA
The regime coalition mobilised its full arsenal of atrocity, including what was very likely a chlorine gas attack on Douma on 1 February. Within two months, 2,000 civilians were killed and more than 80,000 people had been displaced. But the for the regime cost was also high: more than 500 men killed and double that wounded. By the end of March, the rebel pocket was reduced to the areas surrounding Douma and a negotiated surrender was sought. The details here are crucial. Misunderstanding and misrepresentation have been used to spin conspiracy theories about what happened next.
A ceasefire was declared on 23 March and an evacuation deal was reached in the evening of 31 March that allowed for the movement of the critically injured out of Ghouta to rebel-held areas in Idlib in northern Syria. Crucially, a final agreement was delayed while talks continued between JAI and Russia, with a proposal for JAI to remain in place and be joined by Russian military police. Such arrangements have been seen elsewhere in the country, with “reconciled rebels” ceasing to fight the regime and being stripped of their heavy weapons, while maintaining light arms and local authority, bolstered by the return of state services. For Assad, this saves his battered forces having to fight gruelling urban battles, and it outsources governance, removing the demand for occupation troops that might in any case stoke further resistance.
JAI supported “reconciliation” along these lines since the group is unlikely to survive elsewhere. Russia was in favour. But Assad and Iran were opposed to leaving a force as powerful and locally legitimate as JAI so close to the capital. The negotiations broke down. Street-to-street fighting to evict JAI from its home turf would have lasted weeks, maybe months, at a price in the lives of soldiers the regime cannot spare. So Assad took a shortcut.
In the early hours of 7 April, gas cylinders were dropped from helicopters above Douma, killing nearly 50 people and injuring 500. Available evidence of the symptoms of victims and the medical reaction tell of exposure to chemical agents. Hours later, JAI surrendered, accepting expulsion for itself and tens of thousands of anti-regime civilians to Idlib.
There was early speculation that Sarin, a nerve agent, had been used because of the scale of the deaths. While it is still possible that Sarin was mixed into a cocktail of toxins, it is clear now that the primary weapon used by the Assad regime in Douma was chlorine; through an unfortunate series of accidents, its use in Douma was unusually lethal.
The composition of the gas used to murder in Douma mattered for political reasons, going back to the August 2013 chemical atrocity. Though this crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line”, he ultimately stood down. In April 2017, after Assad used Sarin again in Khan Shaykhun, as confirmed by the United Nations, President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against the Shayrat airbase to punish the regime.
It seemed the precedent was clear. From 2013 until April, Assad made extensive use of chlorine as a weapon, averaging about once-a-week. Khan Shaykhun drew a response; chlorine had not, despite the promises of French President Emmanuel Macron. This made a kind of legalistic sense. Sarin is a recognised CWMD, banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Because of chlorine’s commercial uses, states cannot be prevented from possessing it, though it is illegal by the tenets of international law to use it as a weapon. It also made a cruder kind of sense: Sarin is much more lethal than chlorine.
The decision of the United States, Britain, and France to retaliate with force for the Douma atrocity in the early hours of 14 April has somewhat muddied this precedent. Assad cannot now be certain what will and will not bring military retribution—a welcome effect from what was, ultimately, a mistakenly restrained operation.
In the week between the Douma attack and the allied strikes, the regime and its Russian backers engaged in a dual track of active measures. First, seeking to sap support for action by spreading “fake news” to confuse Western publics about what happened in Douma. Second, Moscow tried to deter retributive strikes against Assad by invoking the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and threatening a third world war.
The Russians were unable to halt the strikes, yet their rhetoric appears to have had an effect. Trump “pressed his team” for a robust attack against Assad’s military infrastructure, particularly the air defences, and asked to “consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria if necessary to get at the Assad regime’s military equipment”. Defence Secretary James Mattis counselled against any risk of confrontation with Moscow’s assets in Syria, and Trump finally deferred to the Pentagon.
Only three sites were struck, all directly connected to the CWMD programme. It is possible these buildings were dormant at the time of the strikes; none of them are involved in the production of chlorine munitions. Russia was relieved: unwilling to respond even when America killed Russians en masse in February, Moscow had chosen not even to attempt to interfere with the West’s strikes. Their small scale made this less humiliating. Indeed, the pro-Assad coalition got what it wanted. East Ghouta was cleared and the price was minimal; there was no wider campaign to punish the regime for its crimes, no attempt to change the course of the war.
The possibility of a campaign like Operation DESERT FOX, the four-day bombing of Saddam Hussein’s regime after he expelled the weapons inspectors in December 1998, had spooked Assad. Mattis said the allied strikes were “proportionate”, but as former State Department official Eliot Cohen noted: that’s exactly what they needed not to be.
The Assad regime is brittle. If the Allies had taken the suggestion of Senator Joseph Lieberman to eliminate the regime’s air force and target its “missile infrastructure, Iranian militia bases, elite military units, and the secret police”, this would have crippled the regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, largely removing the decision from the dictator; established a genuine deterrent by wounding the regime so grievously it threatened its survival; and imposed immediate costs on Russia and Iran to stabilise the regime. In short, “something closer to justice, and more importantly, a use of force with a sound strategic purpose”, in Cohen’s phrase.
THE WAR CONTINUES
The essentials of Syria’s war have reasserted themselves, with the only distinction being perhaps a slight apprehension in Assad’s presidential palace about exactly where the red line he could push up to and probe now lies.
The regime is safe in its capital and the strip of territory in western Syria, from Homs to Aleppo and the Mediterranean coastline, that contains the major population centres. Turkey occupies several zones in the northwest of the country. The U.S.’s “partner force”, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), holds the rest of the north and chunks of the east. And a rebel pocket persists in Deraa, near the Israeli border.
Assad and Iran have been able to dictate dynamics in pursuit of a maximalist outcome. Hopes that Russia will, or can, restrain Assad and/or Iran have proven unfounded. In the short-term, this means that the next target of the pro-Assad coalition is likely Deraa, another nominal “de-escalation zone”.
Even if Assad can conquer Deraa, this is hardly total victory: the fragile edifice of regime power will remain open to challenge—the diversion of forces to clear rebel pockets in Damascus opened up space for ISIS in the east—and nearly half of the country will still be beyond his reach.
There have been mixed rhetorical signals from the U.S. about Syria policy, from total withdrawal promised by the President to more open-ended commitments from the Secretary of Defence. Some have mooted replacing the U.S. with an “Arab force” from the Gulf, though some allies aren’t keen; even fewer are capable. Still, the U.S. continues to defend the SDF areas, and all sides understand that a long-term American presence in Syria is needed if ISIS is to be kept down.
DEALING WITH TURKEY
But the reliance on the SDF is a problem. The SDF is a legal-political cover for dealing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group and Turkey’s nemesis. American support for the SDF as its ground force against ISIS has severely damaged relations with Turkey. Ankara’s incursion against the PKK in January halted anti-ISIS operations in the east because the PKK forces moved into Afrin. With the U.S. so isolated in Syria, Ankara might feel emboldened to challenge America further. If the current tension boils over, it could unravel the U.S. position altogether.
Turkey shows no signs of leaving Syria any time soon. Its EUPHRATES SHIELD operation captured north-eastern Aleppo in 2016, a canton containing Jarabulus and Al-Bab; Afrin to the north-west fell in March without much of a fight. The main problem in both areas has been public order. Turkey has worked through rebel groups, theoretically to minimise friction with local populations. In practice, the rebels’ competition for political power, personal rivalries, and simple banditry has been the biggest challenge to stability.
Turkey is also responsible for “Greater Idlib”, the insurgent-held pocket adjacent to its two occupied zones. Idlib is currently dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkey is under pressure to remove the terrorists that would provide the pretext for Idlib, the final “de-escalation” zone, to become another target of the pro-Assad coalition. HTS leaders were summoned to Istanbul two weeks ago and curtly told to disband their organization, or face a Turkish-backed rebel offensive.
Turkey has long supported Ahrar al-Sham, which has influence in the north and in February banded together with the Nooradeen al-Zengi Movement to form Jabhat Tahrir al-Suriya (JTS). JTS and HTS have fought ever since and JTS has scored important successes. Whether Turkey can realise its intention to splinter HTS and kill off the irreconcilable extremists, while forming a “National Army” from the various rebel militias as an anti-PKK buffer on its borders, remains to be seen. In the short-term, Turkey’s need for rebel allies has boosted a beleaguered rebellion.
Even at this late stage, the U.S. has a number of options open to meet its own interests and those of the Syrian people.
Focusing on civilian protection would meet both strategic and moral priorities, putting a stop to Assad, Iran, and Russia systematically shredding Syria’s social fabric and depopulating the country as part of their campaign to create a “healthier … society”. The humanitarian catastrophe resulting from this project is obvious; the resultant refugee flows have destabilised not only the region but Europe.
The United States and its allies have signalled that some war crimes are unacceptable. This was necessary; wide-scale use of CWMD would rapidly increase the death toll. This policy must be expanded and the ultimate source of these crimes removed. This would not require an Iraq-style invasion. It requires the resolve to deter and punish Assad, ignoring Russia’s bluster, and the will to repair damaged relations with allies as part of a broad reorientation of policy that shifts the focus from counter-terrorism to power politics.