BY: HASAN SUZEN
On 7 April 2018, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was subject to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 42 residents and affected the lives of more than 500. Although activists inside Douma, the U.S.-based Syrian American Medical Society, and Syria Civil Defence have provided initial information about the attack, so far, no nonpartisan international bodies have confirmed or presented concrete evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapon use.
The Syrian government has repeatedly employed chemical agents against areas under rebel control. Based on the information gathered by the independent sources, the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of 85 confirmed chemical weapon attacks. It is obvious that the efforts of the United Nations Security Council, the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the Western powers have failed in deterring the Syrian government to use of chemical weapons. Albeit the Syrian government and its backers, Russia and Iran, refused to face the reality in alleged chemical attack in Duma, the U.S. State Department declared that the symptoms of victims in a suspected chemical gas attack in Douma were consistent with those caused by an asphyxiation or nerve agent.
Timing always matters in the game of thrones. After Trump signalled his ultimate intent to withdraw from Syria, some argue that the regime and its backers are likely to test the US’ responsiveness. Others who have great concerns over Iran’s role in the region hold that the US must be directly involved in the Syrian crisis. In this regard, we should recall the Israeli airstrikes that hit Syria’s T-4 airbase. Israel has declined to comment. Certainly, Israel will be benefited most by a comprehensive US-led military campaign in Syria beyond ISIS, deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Iranian hegemony.
Following the chemical attack, as expected, Trump ordered a proportional military strike to “degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons.” Since the 2003 Iraq War, the largest military strike package was heading towards Syria. Surprisingly, its closest ally, Britain, first stated that more evidence was needed before joining a military strike against the regime, but now May is trying to win the backing of the cabinet to join in military action. Unlike the UK, at the very first stage of the increased tension between the US and Syria -and its backers-, France repeatedly highlighted its own red line, threatening to strike if banned chemical weapons are used and currently agreed with the US to “coordinate a strong, joint response”.
Turkey’s stance on the current escalation in Syria is a contradictory one. Erdogan said Turkey’s traditional ties to the West and growing ties to Russia and Iran were no obstacles to Ankara pointing out their mistakes. However, Erdogan regime’s eager rapprochement policy with Russia and Iran as a NATO member, has caused distrust rather than neutrality. Definitely, in a great-power conflict no party forgives and forgets its so-called “neutral stance”. Therefore, we can foresee that Turkey would be one of the biggest losers at the end of the day.
Turning to the Russia-Assad-Iran coalition, no doubt that Moscow is preparing to counter any military strike and has already warned that it does not hesitate to shoot back at US-led missiles, warships and jets if they strike against Syria. Moreover, the so-called coalition has been relocating its military assets and personnel in advance of an expected U.S.-led military strike. More broadly, it is obvious that the Russia-Assad-Iran coalition’s war efforts including using chemical weapons, and their rapprochement with Turkey pose a grave threat to the stability and security of the region, undermining NATO cohesion and defence posture, and fueling the refugee crisis which endangers the stability in Europe.
On this basis, we can envisage that the US, the UK, France, and their possible allies want to punish not only Syria but its backers. But (a crucial but) if the US-led military strike is not limited to Syrian targets, in other words, if the Trump administration intends to deter further Russian aggression, break the Iranian influence and expel Iranian proxies, it would be crystal clear that this elevates the Syrian crisis to another level and there could be a spill-over risk from the region to the globe.
On the other hand, taking Macron’s last-minute effort and hotline between the US and Russia into consideration, we could hold that this will be a military action against Syrian targets, because behind the scenes no party involved directly in the crisis wants an escalation beyond that. It seems that the US and its allies will do their best to avoid any Russian casualties. More precisely, the signals of a proportional military response, “early warning!”, and ongoing communication between the Western powers and Russia make it clear that the ultimate purpose of the US-led strike will most likely not be to topple the Syrian government but to punish and deter chemical weapons use.
Admittedly, even if the new round of strikes cost Syria its capacity to launch further chemical attacks, evidently this option would not be strong enough to bring the Syrian war to a stable end and limit Iranian influence over Syria, as Israel, a closest ally of the US in the region, repeatedly warned. Although the escalation could be an opportunity to leverage international sanctions against Russia and Iran, due to the fact that apparently Israeli interests and those of the US are not fully aligned, Israel itself is likely to increase pressure on the US to do more in Syria.
Hasan SUZEN is a PhD Candidate and research fellow at Beyond the Horizon, a nonpartisan, independent, and non-profit think tank organization in Brussels. He received master degrees from the Oklahoma University and the US Command and General Staff College about international affairs and security studies.
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