A year ago, on April 7 2017, the U.S. fired 59 cruise-missiles against a Syrian air-force base, from where the Assad regime had launched a chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Ghouta, just outside Damascus. The idea was to, as President Trump said at the time, prevent and deter further Syrian use of chemical weapons. This very clearly failed. Instead Syrian President Assad called Trumps bluff and continued using chemical weapons. That this was done with Russian collusion hasn’t escaped anyone. Russia has consistently protected the Assad regime by vetoing any UNSCR put forth to investigate Syrian use of chemical weapons, and will do so again this time. Russia even went so far as to deny the obvious and said there was no attack at all.
So a year later, Assad-forces launched what is at least the eight such attack this year (this time on Douma), and again President Trump threatened retaliation. And perhaps he will send a new batch of missiles, or not. The statements coming out of Washington (and other western capitals such as Paris) could also be read as rather non-committal.
Back in 2013, after the first larger attacks with chemical weapons against rebels, and the civilians just happening to live in the targeted neighborhoods, a deal (with Russia acting the middle-Man) was struck whereby Assad promised to rid himself of all chemical weapons. Most of it did go out of the country, but not all of it.
This is no surprise to anyone. The Syrian chemical-weapons program has been known to the outside world for many years, including information on where it’s being produced and stocked. Before the present war, the U.S., Israel and Russia (and before that the Soviet Union who helped Syria launch the chemical-weapons program) knew and already at the beginning of the war, in 2012, the Obama-administration warned Assad that using chemical weapons was a ‘red line’. But when Assad did use it on Ghouta in 2013, Obama dithered and the deal mentioned above took place, making it possible for Assad to keep enough to clobber civilians or rebels wielding Kalashnikovs.
So it’s not like we didn’t know, or didn’t had the means to search and destroy whatever remained. Grounding Syrian air-force (including choppers) would have been a limited and easy-to-enforce policy that would have saved thousands of people in Syria. Assad ally Russia doesn’t have the means to seriously go up against that if pushed. And besides, with stand-alone ammunition, Syrian needn’t even be entered to accurately hit targets inside the country.
So this latest war-crime was entirely preventable and it was known long ago that by not enforcing the red lines back in 2013, Assad was shown that doing what he felt he had to do to survive on his throne – including killing his own citizens with chemical weapons – came with next to no price to pay.
President Trump’s latest tweets – a preferred mean to convey policy statements – do not amount to a foreign policy, and neither will launching cruise-missiles. With Trump’s recent statements on U.S. withdrawals from Syria, it’s no wonder that Assad feels he can dismiss any rhetoric from Washington (or anywhere else in the West). A few cruise-missiles didn’t change his policy a year ago and that was already clear back when the Obama-administration failed to act.
At any point during the last seven years, the U.S., the UK, France, Turkey or even Israel could have carried out air-strikes targeting weapon-depots, airfields or artillery used to launch the attacks. Or a no-flight- zone could have been established (like the allies did in Iraq protecting the KRG from Saddam Hussein back in 1990’s). But they didn’t. And since missile-strikes are not the same as a coherent policy, and since Russia, Turkey and Iran - each headed by individuals just as authoritarian as Assad – are heavily invested in keeping the Syrian regime in its palace, there are no signs right now that anyone is going to step up to the table and try to seriously hold Assad back. Not because there aren’t any means available, but because there isn’t any will to do it.