Smoke rises from an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobane after a US-led coalition strike on October 18, 2014
A friend writes from Damascus - ‘the ground is shaking’. It was 4am Damascus time. Our messages go back and forth. He says that he can see the tracers from the missiles and from the anti-aircraft fire. ‘This is not THE big strike’, he writes. He means that the United States, the United Kingdom and France have not decided to conduct a regime change strike. This is a small strike – a strike that suggests we’ve done something but not a strike that suggests anything more than that.
Certainty about this strike is not widespread. Questions abound about the accuracy of the assessments and the timing of the strike. Is this really about the allegations about the use of chemical weapons?
1. Did the Syrian government use chemical weapons in Douma?
Allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government have been made in 2013, 2017 and last week. There have also been other allegations about the use of chlorine gas by the government. After the allegation of a massive chemical attack in 2013, the United States and the Russians made a deal for the destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons. The United Nations Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sent in a Fact-Finding Mission, which eventually – with US assistance – catalogued and destroyed the remnants of the Syrian chemical weapons programme. The final report from the OPCW remained inconclusive. It did not – with certainty – say who had used the weapons. The issue of the author of the chemical weapons strike was set aside. It was seen to be more important to destroy the stockpile.
After this most recent allegation, the UN once more assembled its Fact-Finding Mission in Beirut. They were preparing to enter Syria and go to Douma to study the evidence. Before they could go into the country, the United States, the United Kingdom and France destroyed three sites which they claim are part of Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure. The Mission has now reached Damascus. They will now work in an adverse environment. The Syrian government, which had agreed to the UN request for the team to enter the country, will now feel that they have already been punished before the investigation. This will ruin the trust necessary for the team to do its work.
So far, there is no conclusive evidence as to who used the chemical weapons in Douma. An OPCW official tells me that they have no confidence that they can prove anything.
2. Didn’t the United Nations – with US help – destroy Syrian chemical weapons in 2013-14?
In September 2014, the head of the UN team – Sigrid Kaag – told the United Nations Security Council that her team – with US assistance – had destroyed 100% of the ‘priority chemicals’ and 96% of the stockpile. There was some doubt about the accuracy of the Syrian reporting; there was worry that the Syrian government might have hidden some of its stockpile. But the UN team seemed confident that it had accomplished its task. One member of the team told me at that time that it would, however, have been difficult for the Syrian government to have hidden chemical stockpiles.
If the UN verified the destruction of the stockpile, what chemical weapons have the Syrian government been accused of using in 2017 and 2018? Strikingly, there are no answers to this question.
3. If the West knew where the Syrian were developing chemical weapons, why did the Trump administration not destroy these sites in the 2017 bombing raid?
Trump has said that the West has now destroyed the infrastructure for chemical weapons. This assumes that the Western intelligence agencies knew of the existence of this infrastructure. If they knew this, why did they not inform the UN and insist upon having these sites inspected in 2013-14? If they only found out about these sites after 2014, why did the Trump administration not destroy them in its bombing raid in 2017? At that time, after the allegations of chemical weapons use in Khan Shaykhun, the US fired missiles at the Shayrat Airbase, from where the US said the plane took off that delivered the chemical weapon on Khan Shaykhun. Why not bomb the production sites for the weapons in 2017 and not wait for another year? This is a fair question that should be asked of the Americans. It raises questions about the seriousness of purpose in 2017 and the veracity of the statements in 2018.
4. Why does the West believe that this bombing run in 2018 will have more a deterrent effect than the bombing run in 2017?
In 2017, Trump said that the bombing of Shayrat Airbase was a message to the Assad government – never again use chemical weapons. If the Assad government did use chemical weapons in Douma last week, then the deterrent did not work. Is that why the Trump administration – without evidence – now says that it has gone after the production sites for the chemical weapons? If this is so, then it raises serious questions about the West hiding important information – with grave humanitarian implications – from the United Nations. The United States has made two claims: that the Syrians used chemical weapons in Douma and that the US knew that the Syrians were manufacturing these weapons at the three sites bombed on Friday night. If these two allegations are correct, then the West knew beforehand about Syrian chemical weapons sites and that this was not reported to the UN. It suggests Western complicity – by omission – of the use of chemical weapons in Douma.
5. Won’t the destruction of the chemical weapons infrastructure in this raid make it impossible for a future allegation about chemical weapons use?
If, on the other hand, these chemical weapons allegations are being used – as the Russians suggest – to provide diplomatic purchase for the West, then this particular raid on the three sites has ended that pretext. No longer will it be credible for the West to say that Assad has used chemical weapons after Trump has now said that all such chemical weapons sites have been destroyed. Machismo paints Trump into a corner. If Assad has used chemical weapons, and plans to use them again, then Trump’s exaggerated statements provide Assad with an open door to use such weapons. This is the ‘boy cries wolf’ scenario.
US Ambassador has now said that the US is ‘locked and loaded’ to strike Syria again if there is another chemical attack. This goes against what Trump has said about the total destruction of the chemical weapons infrastructure. Haley statement leaves the door open for more bombing when it suits the West.
6. Is this Western bombing run really about humanitarianism and the Syrian people?
It would require an act of supreme naiveté to imagine that the West is bombing Syria to save the Syrians.
Firstly, the United States has – over the Trump presidency - only taken in eleven Syrian refugees. The attitude of the country to the refugee crisis belies any humanitarian rhetoric from Trump and his ambassador to the UN – Nikki Haley.
Secondly, that the West would bomb chemical weapons sites with heavy munitions – sites that are not far from residential neighbourhoods – is a stunningly callous act. It means that this bombing run has polluted the ground and the air. It would have been far more humanitarian to have informed the UN team about these sites, sent in the inspectors and then destroyed the stockpiles in a scientific manner. If these were chemical weapons sites, then there will eventually be evidence of their being exposed to the atmosphere by the Western bombing runs; if these were not chemical weapons sites, then serious questions need to be asked about the motives of the West.
Thirdly, not long after Ambassador Haley prevented the UN from having a serious discussion about the Israeli army’s murder of Palestinians in Gaza, she found her voice for Syria. Hypocrisy flooded the UN chamber.
There is a sober sense that the Syrian government – with its allies – will slowly and surely recapture the main territory of the country. That is now without contest. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said of the strikes, ‘This is not about regime change. This is not about turning the tide of the conflict in Syria’. The West has found itself made irrelevant in the near future. This bombing episode puts the West back in the centre again. But this is only for a time.
When the dust settles, the Syrian army will continue to advance towards Idlib and towards smaller pockets in Daraa. Syrian claims that they shot down US missiles – whether true or not – suggest confidence by the government. They are not cowered. That is the message they send. The shield provided by the Russians has indeed invalidated a regime change bombardment.
The ground shook in Damascus. But only for a time.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.
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