On the campaign trail Donald Trump paid lip service to the idea of non-intervention by arguing from a position of economic nationalism. Any illusion that he was intending to reduce the role of the American military in the world has now been shattered, but this is not especially surprising given his temperament. In response to the suspected chemical attack in Idlib province on Tuesday, the US military has launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syrian military installations. The targets are centred on the Shayrat Airfield south of the Syrian city of Homs and were designed to cripple the Assad government’s aerial capability. Everything about this is situation is terrible.
When the news broke about the chemical attack I had two thoughts. The first was a visceral human reaction of sadness. But the second was of confusion. Immediately the blame was put on the Assad regime and whilst it would not be out of character of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons, there is something amiss with this development.
If the Assad government did use chemical weapons there are a number of possible scenarios. First, the Syrian government did remove all their chemical weapons but the Russians have given them back. Second, the Syrians have made more chemical weapons since the Russians removed their stockpiles in October 2013. Or third, they didn’t get rid of all their chemical weapons in the first place. However, there are problems with each of these scenarios.
In the first case, it would not be in Russia’s national interest to have an ally with chemical weapons as this could be grounds for Western military action, especially after Putin was lauded internationally for his role in facilitating the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles.
In the second case, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspected all declared chemical weapons sites in Syria and the OPCW has said that they believe that all Assad’s chemical weapons have been removed from the country. It has been alleged that not all chemical weapons facilities had been declared by Assad regime, and whilst this is possible it leads me onto the third point.
If Assad still had chemical weapons, using them would be highly risky as the world believes that he got rid of them all. Take a look at the wider Syrian conflict. The US had recently moderated its stance on Assad’s role in any future government, and has also taken a more lenient stance on Russia. Further, the Kurds have recently stepped up their advances towards Raqqa. In late February the Turkish military took control of parts of northern Aleppo, thus weakening ISIS, and the Syrian army entered the final ISIS stronghold in Aleppo, which gives them the ability to push more forces towards Raqqa.
It appears that the Assad regime is in its most commanding military position in recent years, so why would they use chemical weapons at this time? The last thing Assad needs is the US stepping up its campaign against Syrian government forces. I would describe Assad as a cold-hearted realist. By this I mean, if he thinks he can preserve his own power by killing children in an airstrike he will do it, but before he does he will weigh the political impact of such an act. Although we can agree that his actions are hugely immoral, there is a twisted logic that exists that makes him not an irrational actor like, for example, Kim Jong-Un. And thus we return to the question: why would Assad do this?
I am not denying that is possible that Assad used chemical weapons but if he did it would be out of step with his previous actions. There is something wrong here, but it is too soon to say what specifically it is. Some people who believe it was Assad argue that it was a test for the new US government, but I find this view very unconvincing. Why would Assad test the Trump Administration given how impulsive and inane Trump is? Assad surely must have know that a narcissist like Trump would do anything to preserve his persona as a strong leader, so doing something so provocative would only weaken his position.
The other reason I am suspicious is because of the speed of the response. Not enough time had passed for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to ascertain the full extent of what happened in Idlib. It had been less than a day between the chemical attack being reported and missiles being deployed against the Assad regime, and there is still confusion as to who was responsible.
The Russian military have said that the Assad regime bombed a building where the Syrian rebels were building a chemical weapon. As a result the toxic gas, which Médecines Sans Frontières have said is likely sarin and/or chlorine, was spread throughout the town. This is also a suspicious response. Firstly, chemical weapons experts have said that the devastation caused wouldn’t happen is a bomb hit a facility. And secondly the Syrian bombing occurred after the first chemical attack victim had been reported.
Furthermore, American military intelligence, particularly the CIA, doesn’t exactly have a brilliant record when it comes to these sorts of things. The example that leaps to mind is the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964. This was the action that led to the US formally declaring war on North Vietnam, but to this day historians are divided on what actually happened. The story at the time was that the USS Maddox was attacked first on 2nd August 1964, and then a second time on 4th August. According to the Pentagon Papers, the USS Maddox was actually inside North Vietnamese territorial waters and fired at pro-communist boats first. However some historians argue whether this was true or not.
However, there is much more consensus on the second attack. A series of former CIA analysts from the time have come out and said that the evidence supporting the second attack was highly questionable. Indeed James Bamford, who was a naval intelligence officer, went as far as claiming that President Lyndon Johnson was aware that the evidence was shaky. Nevertheless, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the pretext for one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. Congress approved a declaration of war on 10th August 1964.
The parallels with Syria are striking. Nobody quite knows what happened, the President is accepting the intelligence community’s recommendations without evaluating the evidence, and there is no logical reason for the supposed perpetrator to have acted in they way they are accused of doing. Again, this isn’t to say that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons, but suspending critical thinking because of fast moving events cannot be an option.
The response by the United States is notable for a second reason. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, of the 59 missiles that were launched by the US, only 23 hit the Shayrat Airfield. I would take anything the Russian MoD says with a pinch of salt, but if this is true it shows two things.
Firstly, the incompetence of some in the American military. And secondly, the blatant disregard for human life of senior American officials. If I was trying to shoot someone surrounded by bystanders, and over half the bullets I fired missed, there is a good chance that a lot of innocent people would have died. If the Russian MoD is correct then either those who conducted the attack should be fired for gross incompetence, or they are blood-thirsty psychopaths who should be sent to The Hague. Given that Trump has shown contempt for civilian casualties in the past, it is not inconceivable that the US President is complicit in this act of state terrorism.
To conclude, events have moved too fast in the last few hours for someone to justifiably argue that they know what is going on. Whilst not beyond the realms of possibility that Assad did conduct the chemical attack in Idlib, I am still unsure what he would have to gain from such an attack, particularly when the campaign against ISIS seems to have been going so well. The fact that the Russian government also lied about the timeline of events is also suspicious, but this could be their terrible attempt to cover up for their ally.
The US response however is grossly misjudged. Attacking a Russian ally is always a, let’s say, brave decision but doing so whilst so much is yet unknown is just stupid. Further, if so many missiles did miss their target then the fallout could be too much for the American public to take laying down. The following days shall be a test of resolve. If Trump uses the chemical attack in Idlib as the pretext for war then Syria may well become Vietnam 2.0.