Trump's Syria 'action' is a triumph for Assad

Trump's Syria 'action' is a triumph for Assad
Comment: The coalition's attack on Assad's chemical weapons bases demonstrates they have no intention whatsoever of making a meaningful intervention in Syria, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
18 Apr, 2018
Trump described the attack on Douma as 'evil and despicable' [Getty]
Last week, the US, UK and France launched the largest intervention against Assad in the seven-year-long history of the conflict. In total, 105 missiles were fired deep into the Baathist rump, hitting sites where Assad and his allies were stockpiling and creating chemical weapons.  

Despite the warnings, usually issued by a combination of fools and knaves, there was no WWIII.  Russia's claims of reprisal for any attack that hit Assad failed to materialise.

It ought to have been the final nail in the coffin of the idea that Russia was willing to risk global war over the ramshackle, increasingly foreign and fractured Baathist rump state, propped up by the Iran.  

Such was the desperation of Moscow, they claimed that the air defences that they had provided Assad had shot down numerous cruise missiles, without providing any evidence at all, and with the US directly contradicting this.  

To call the gulf in technology and capabilities between the US armed forces and the Russian ones a mere mismatch, is to do it an injustice. Russia's military, despite some high profile showcases of new technologies, has barely changed from its mainly defensive Soviet-era disposition. In Syria, its two dozen or so bombers are viciously excellent at murdering civilians from the skies, but not much else.  

For a few years now, many of us have pointed out that Russia's "might" in Syria, or around the world, is not based on the formidable nature of its military power compared to NATO. Rather, Russia's expansionism is based on its audaciousness and knowledge that its enemies are, for a variety of reasons, unlikely to act meaningfully against it.  

Yet, despite all this - the ease with which the US, UK and France conducted these attacks and the Russian bear acting more like a Koala than Kamchatka - Assad, Iran and Russia were still the victors.  

In fact, the Assad axis had won before the first strikes were launched.  

To quote Trump's speech on the night of the action, the strikes were launched as "precision strikes on the chemical weapons capabilities of… Bashar al-Assad".

Assad and Russia could've rained hell on Syrians using the aforementioned weapons while Trump was tweeting 'mission accomplished'

Trump detailed how last Saturday in Douma Assad had used chemical weapons to "slaughter innocent civilians" in what was "a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime".  

Trump said the "evil and despicable attack" had "left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead."

A monster indeed.  

He is a monster who burns Syrians, whether men, women or children, alive, blows them apart and maims them with conventional weapons. History here conjures an extremely dark comparison: The focus simply on Assad using poison gas - as if that's the only example or determining factor of his barbarism - is like discounting the activities of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads in murdering around 2 million Jews with bullets before they moved on to using the more effective Zyklon B poison gas.

Trump can claim all he likes that chemical weapons are "uniquely dangerous" and "devastating", but while its true as a weapon of terror they are gruesomely effective, the reality is that Assad's wider genocide with 'conventional weapons' is much worse.

From this angle, like the Kerry-Lavrov deal struck by the Obama administration following the Ghouta massacre in 2013, one could even go as far to say that this was yet another international green light of Assad's genocidal war by conventional weapons.

The message to Assad from the coalition can only be read in the following way: Don't dare use chemical weapons to murder Syrians, but when it comes to barrel bombs, napalm, thermobaric missiles, white phosphorus, artillery shells or even just bullets - knock yourself out.  

The reality is that Assad and Russia could've rained hell on Syrians using the aforementioned weapons while Trump was tweeting "mission accomplished".

The Syrian opposition immediately knew this dynamic.

Speaking to Reuters following the coalition strikes, Naser al-Hariri of the Syrian National Council,
remarked "maybe the regime will not use chemical weapons again, but it will use weapons".  

The Assad axis had won before the first strikes were launched

Even on stopping Assad using chemicals, there remains a point of uncertainty. While the Kerry-Lavrov deal was one of the great acts of appeasement of genocidal forces of the 21st century, there's no doubt that it did diminish a significant component of Assad's sarin stockpiles; diminish, but not entirely deplete, as the Khan Sheikhoun massacre demonstrated.  

This is the main reason why Assad has moved on to using chlorine and, as seems to be the case with the Douma attack, a mixture of chlorine and a nerve agent of some kind, is due to his lack of sarin capabilities.  

However, as chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told The Financial Times, "he [Assad] still has the capability to deliver chlorine and there's limitless amounts of that". Though it's perfectly true that these strikes indicate that the US, UK and France are willing to hit Assad should he use chemical weapons again, there's no reason why he couldn't use something as readily weaponisable as chlorine. In fact, given the strikes simply hit bases and didn't in any way weaken Assad's war effort, he might calculate that using chlorine is worth the risk.

With a monster like Assad, and with crimes as heinous as genocide, the point of any military action should have had two interrelated components: Firstly, to protect civilian lives from all weapons aimed against them, and secondly, to weaken the ability of Assad to perpetrate crimes against civilians.  

The reality is that Assad's wider genocide with 'conventional weapons' is much worse

To put this second point in its most recognisable language – to destroy his regime. If we lived in a world that had leaders who thought Syrian lives mattered, this would have been what underlay the action against Assad.

But this couldn't be further from what happened, and the Assad axis knows it full well.

Justifying UK involvement in the action, and despite the hysterical line of the hordes of apologists for Assad, Iran and Russia, Theresa May jumped at the chance to distance what she called the 'limited' strikes from any will by the British government to pursue 'regime change' or even 'interfering in a civil war'.

Mattis was similarly upfront about the limited nature of the engagement,
saying "we [are] not out to expand this". Following suit, French president Macron stated "we have not declared war on the Assad regime".  

The strikes simply hit bases and didn't in any way weaken Assad's war effort

Perish the thought. We live in a world where the response to children being murdered by poison gas is seen as more controversial than the murder itself.

Even on the question of whether the Russia-friendly Trump administration gave Russia advanced warnings of the strikes, there is an air of uncertainty. Mattis said there was no such advanced warnings, but the French defence minister contradicted this claiming that advanced warnings had been issued by the coalition to Russia before the strikes.  

As I write this, the Assad axis has begun "preparatory shelling" for the final assault on the last remaining rebel-held areas of Damascus. No one will do a thing.

After this, full attention can turn to Idlib, which is home to two million Syrians, many of them having been cleansed by the Assad regime from other areas, where the scale and scope of the terror and carnage using conventional weapons Assad, Iran and Russia could unleash, is truly terrifying.  

In line with the coalition's will "not to interfere" in a "civil war" and not protect civilians in general, the Assad axis is already boasting about it. A regime military spokesman said of the coalition action "such attacks will not deter our armed forces and allied forces from persisting to crush what is left of the armed terrorist groups", while an emissary of from their masters in Tehran left no doubt as to the fact that Idlib is the next target.

The cruellest aspect of the coalition action is that it proves not just that there could be wider, meaningful, life-saving intervention without WWIII or any such notion, but that the main powers involved have no will to do it.  

For Assad, chemical weapons or not, it's business as usual. The murder machine remains barely even dented.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.