Air strikes unlikely to change course of conflict in Syria

4:27 pm on 15 April 2018

By Emma Beals*

Opinion - Limited US, UK, and French air strikes on Syrian targets have ended a week of speculation and drama, but are unlikely to change the course of the conflict, or protect Syrian lives.

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Photo: AFP

On April 14, US President Trump approved airstrikes on Syria in cooperation with the United Kingdom and France. The strikes began as Trump announced the decision to strike had been taken at 9pm Eastern time - 4am local time in Damascus - and continued for nearly an hour. The Pentagon later said that the "one off" campaign had targeted three sites, all of which they believe are integral to the Syrian government's chemical weapons capabilities.

The strikes end a week of back and forward Twitter-diplomacy, and dramatic conjecture about whether there would be any military action taken by the US in response to a chemical weapons attack in the Damascene suburb of Douma on April 7. By dawn, Syria's government and their supporters in Damascus were holding defiant rallies, protesting the strikes and highlighting their strength and resolve.

On the multi-lateral track, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will meet again today at Russia's request. They met throughout the week, and attempted to pass resolution after resolution that would allow for a proper independent investigation into the use of the weapons.

In November, Russia vetoed the extension of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which was an instrument of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons and the UN investigating chemical weapons use in the war-torn country. The JIM's mandate extended to apportioning blame for use of these weapons, in a way the OPCW are not able to do, and it was the use of this function to point blame at the Russians for the Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack in 2017 that prompted Russia's decision to block its work.

With no resolution in place, the Syrian government invited the OPCW to investigate, and a team arrived in Damascus today. Their work will not apportion blame for any attack if they find evidence, and with an eight day delay, and multiple parties to the conflict having accessed the site of last weekend's attack, there is little likelihood their investigation will be conclusive.

Regardless of their findings, what is clear is that the international community's efforts to dismantle Assad's chemical weapons capabilities in 2013 and '14 were not successful, and Syria maintains chemical weapons capabilities. This remains true after these most recent strikes, which have reduced but not crippled the country's ability to create and use chemical weapons including chlorine.

US President Donald Trump departs after addressing the nation on the situation in Syria.

US President Donald Trump departs after addressing the nation on the situation in Syria. Photo: AFP or licensors

While pundits and the public alike feared US intervention would cause World War III, there is little evidence that the strikes will prompt more than feisty rhetoric and belligerent behaviour from the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran. It is this same belligerence, and disregard for international law, that has seen them use chemical weapons between 50 and 200 plus times throughout the conflict already.

Red-lines around the use of chemical weapons have both a legal and political basis. International law prohibits their use, and Obama's "red-line" statement of 2012 led to heightened political drama around their use in 2013 when more than 1000 people were killed in eastern ghouta by a government attack. Obama's decision not to strike at that time, has given Trump an obvious point of difference in his use of deterrent strikes, both in 2017 in response to the Khan Sheihkoun attack, and this weekend in response to the Douma attack.

Trump's second set of strikes to deter chemical weapons use have been limited in their scope, though larger than the last package. For this reason, and because Russia was informed through deconfliction channels and were therefore able to prevent losses, it is unlikely they will retaliate militarily in any serious manner against the United States, the UK, or France within Syria. All three countries maintain a military presence in the countries north-east as part of their countering-ISIS campaign, and will have been keen to avoid imperiling either that campaign or their military forces.

Syrians that hoped the strikes would target the Assad regime or their grip on power are disappointed. The US made pains to highlight, both through the nature of the strikes, and their framing of them in briefings, that they are not looking to engage in a campaign to oust the Syrian President, or punish him and his allies for the myriad other bombs and tactics they have used against civilians throughout the war. The line has clearly been drawn at chemical weapons.

From here, two things need to happen. One is the design and implementation of a multilateral strategy to address the use and possession of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The second is a robust strategy to attempt to end the Syrian conflict and protect Syrians from the bombs and brutality of a government that has used chemical and traditional weaponry against its own people for years.

Neither of these outcomes were achieved during yesterday's strikes, and the US, UK, and French governments have not yet articulated a strategy aimed at achieving either. As the dust settles, and the dramatic rhetoric begins to ratchet down, this is the work that must be done.

*Emma Beals is an award-winning independent journalist who has focused on the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the rise of ISIS since 2012.

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