Following last weekend’s suspected chemical weapons attack, the Syrian conflict could escalate once again. U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter threat and Russian response show just how dangerous the situation has become. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
The images that follow a chemical weapons attack can be difficult to look at: infants gasping for breath and receiving CPR from rescue workers; mothers screaming desperately; children being sprayed with water to help wash off the chemicals; people foaming at the mouth.
Such images could be seen following the suspected chemical weapons attack last Saturday on the Syrian city of Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Although it isn’t possible to verify the authenticity of every photo or prove beyond doubt that the Assad regime was behind it, the April 7 attack still alarmed an international community that has otherwise followed the war in Syria with relative apathy.
The horrific images and news of the use of chemical weapons banned under international law succeeded in doing what other terrible news coming out of Syria has failed to: United States President Donald Trump has raised the prospect of punitive military action that would exceed all previous Western interventions against the Assad regime. Great Britain and France have also indicated they would participate. But it remains unclear when the attack would take place or how big it might really be.
Mohammed Adel of Douma didn’t just see pictures of the attack on his district, he says he experienced the attack firsthand. He arrived as a refugee on Monday in al-Bab, a city in the Aleppo Governorate currently occupied by the Turkish military as part of its Operation Euphrates Shield. Adel says that life had already become unbearable in embattled Douma in the weeks preceding the attack because of the unrelenting bombing by the Assad regime and its Russian allies.
“We were sticking to our basements,” he says. “Anytime anyone went out to get something to eat or to fetch water, they said goodbye to everyone. You didn’t know if they would make it back alive. People died just trying to cross the street.” But he still didn’t want to leave Douma, his hometown. Following the chemical attack on Saturday, however, he says he has now left the city behind “forever.”
He says it was almost impossible to even pull the victims out of their homes after the chemical weapons fell from the sky because the bombing continued after the strike. “When we finally managed to get to one of the sites, what we saw shook even us: men, women, children, some dead, and others desperately trying to breath — and there was nothing we could do.”
Even before the suspected chemical attack, Douma had already begun looking in the past several weeks like a turning point in the Syrian conflict in the form of the defeat of the rebels who had been holding out there since 2012. After Homs and Aleppo, the defeat would mean the rebels had now also lost the suburbs of Damascus. They would be forced to withdraw to the northern Idlib Governorate and Syria’s most important cities would once again be entirely under the regime’s control.
Trump’s Erratic Syria Policy
The escalation between the powers controlling the Syria of today no longer has much to do with the origins of the conflict. The battle between President Bashar Assad and his opponents has faded into the background. Instead, the conflict is escalating because of the actions of regional powers including Iran, Israel and Turkey, as well as Russia and the U.S. The military strike recently threatened by Trump could serve to further exacerbate the situation. In the worst-case scenario, observers fear, it could even result in a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. Nobody seems to be concerned with the Syrians themselves any longer.
Trump’s tweet on Wednesday sounded like a declaration of war. “Get ready Russia,” he typed on his smartphone shortly before 7 a.m. that morning. The U.S. missiles would be coming to Syria, he wrote, and they would be “nice and new and ‘smart!'” It appeared that an airstrike against Assad was imminent, a military action that could also affect Russian military installations in Syria. Then, half a day later, the all-clear signal came from White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said final decisions hadn’t yet been made. The next morning, Trump tweeted that the missiles could be fired “very soon or not so soon at all!”
On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Jim Matthis entered the fray, attempting to lower expectations of an imminent strike. “On a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that,” he said. His language betrayed clear concern.
The back and forth underscores just how erratic the Trump administration’s Syria policies are. In January, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sketched out five aims for the U.S. to pursue in Syria during a speech given at Stanford University. First, Tillerson said, Islamic State and al-Qaida must suffer enduring defeat. Second, the civil war needs to be resolved through a UN-led diplomatic process. Third, the U.S. wants to diminish Iranian influence in Syria. Fourth, conditions need to be created for Syrian refugees to return to their homes. And fifth, Syria must be free of weapons of mass destruction.
Trump’s own staff helped develop that strategy, making it even more astounding that the president would unceremoniously tear up the plan with two sentences at the end of March. In a speech to union workers in Ohio, Trump said: “We will be coming out of Syria very soon.” He then added: “Let the other people take care of it now.” Observers in Washington interpreted those statements to mean a complete withdrawal from Syria, as soon as possible, on the direct orders of the president. Trump’s staff would later backpedal, but either way, it would be difficult to argue that the administration has anything resembling a Syria strategy at the moment.
Most observers assumed that the retaliatory strike would be more extensive than the one conducted in April 2017. Back then, the Assad regime had attacked rebels using the nerve agent sarin in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Trump, shocked by the images of dead babies, ordered a retaliatory strike, one that was largely symbolic in nature. The U.S. bombarded Syria’s Shayrat air base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the airport was returned to full functionality within 24 hours.
Trump’s problem is that he must now balance competing impulses. On the one hand, he wants to punish Assad for the chemical attack. On the other, though, he wants to avoid creating the impression he intends to stay militarily engaged in Syria on the long term. Good relations with Moscow also remain important to him.
Syria is the first and, so far, only example of an instance in which Trump has criticized Vladimir Putin by name. Russia “shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal” like Assad “who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. To be on the safe side, he also tweeted that “much of the bad blood with Russia” is being caused by the Russia investigation in the U.S. and not by the president himself. But her too, his attempt to split the difference merely served to increase the confusion this week.
Despite the threat of an attack from Washington, Moscow is currently demonstrating what could be described as gleeful indifference. The TV station Rossiya 24 provided joking but also thorough advice to its viewers on the products they can store for the long term in nuclear bunkers. Officials in the Kremlin seemed to remain calm. Addressing Trump’s tweets, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied, “We don’t participate in Twitter diplomacy. We advocate serious approaches.”
Nevertheless, Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, drew a new red line in March by saying that if there were any Russian victims in a U.S. attack on the Assad regime, Moscow “will take response measures against both the rockets and the platforms from which they’re fired.” But the Russian newspaper Kommersant is reporting that military officials in Moscow assume that the Americans will also warn them in advance of where and when it intends to strike, just as they did in 2017.
Assuming an accidental escalation is avoided, it is likely that any U.S. strikes against the regime would only have slight influence on the course of the conflict in the country. Syria’s future hinges on other more essential decisions that have yet to be taken. Issues like what will happen with the U.S. bases and soldiers in the northeast, where Syria’s oil reserves are located, sites the regime would like to regain access to. Around 2,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed in the Kurdish-controlled region. This military presence is the only leverage the U.S. has in the country.
But it’s not the Americans who will decide how things further develop in Syria. That is primarily up to those countries that have significantly more soldiers or militias in the country — Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The Key Players
In Syria, there’s no way of getting around Russia, which has catapulted itself back to the status of a global power with its intervention in Syria, which began in 2015. But the country is also slowly becoming a problem for Moscow. The Russians helped prevent victory by Assad’s opponents and, in addition to its relatively unimportant naval support base in Tartus, it built the massive Hmeimim air base nearby. But Moscow’s strategy was also to include a second step: that of using military means to obtain a political solution that would bring an end to the war and the also share the burden of reconstruction costs with other countries. Russian and Iranian companies would stand to profit especially from reconstruction efforts. Plus, the international community would have to be willing to pay the bill for reconstruction. But that won’t happen for as long as Assad is in power.
It’s not only the opposition, but also Assad, who are frustrating Moscow’s policies. Assad doesn’t want to make any compromises if he can secure a complete victory. As such, Russia, which already announced its planned withdrawal from Syria twice, has been pulled into the war for the longer term.
Iran has far deeper influence on Assad than Russia and is at the same time a rival to the Syrian leader. Indeed, Tehran is deeply intertwined with the regime in Damascus, politically, militarily and economically. Its ultimate goal is to create the so-called Shiite Crescent, a sphere of influence that would stretch all the way into Lebanon — and also pose a threat to Israel.
And then there’s Turkey. In the beginning, Ankara wanted to establish a new order in Syria, but now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is just trying to avoid ending up emptyhanded. Even if he isn’t admitting it yet, he long ago abandoned his plan of toppling Assad and replacing him with Islamists. His main priority now is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state in Syria and to secure the areas along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Finally, there’s Israel, which has so far been one of the biggest losers in the conflict. For some time, it merely looked on at what was happening in its neighboring country because it appeared to be beneficial that Israel’s archenemies — Assad, Iran and Hezbollah — had all become embroiled in a war against the rebels. Now that this phase of the war appears to be coming to an end, the disillusionment in Israel is great. Its enemies are now triumphing and are brimming with self-confidence, new weapons technologies and combat experience. “No matter what the price, we will not allow Iran to have a permanent foothold in Syria,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday. “We have no other choice.” Israelis view the Iranians as an existential threat to their country. Israel has conducted around 100 airstrikes on positions in Syria since 2013 and the country is being pulled ever deeper into the Syrian war.
It was also apparently Israel that became the first to launch a military intervention in Syria shortly after Saturday’s chemical attack. Early on Monday morning, explosions rocked the Syrian air force base T-4, located between Homs and Palmyra. Seven Iranians were reportedly killed in the attack, including, according to reports from Iran, a drone expert.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Russian Defense Ministry said that the rockets responsible for the blasts had been fired by two Israeli fighter jets in Lebanese airspace.
Israel has long relied on Russia to keep Iran from crossing Israel’s red line and becoming a direct threat. But the Russians are apparently unable to do so, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is becoming increasingly brazen in Syria. In February, they set a trap for Tel Aviv, which led to the shooting down of an Israeli jet.
Following the Monday morning attack, Iran issued a threat to the Israelis, and in Tel Aviv, the warning was taken seriously. Israeli officials fear that if the U.S. were to launch airstrikes on Syria, the Iranians could attack Israel from Syrian territory.
Barack Obama once predicted that Russia’s intervention in Syria would end in a “quagmire,” — a messy situation out of which it could no longer free itself. In 2013, partly out of fear of getting stuck in just such a quagmire, Obama declined to enforce the “red line” he himself had drawn. In 2012, he had indicated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime would not be tolerated. Whether his refusal to enforce that “red line” was a wise bit of restraint or whether it simply made everything worse is something that remains a matter of intense debate today.
Now, it is yet another presumed chemical weapons deployment that threatens to intensify the Syrian quagmire for all involved. And there doesn’t appear to be an obvious way out for any side.
A Challenging Mission
On Saturday, international experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are set to travel to Syria. French President Emmanuel Macron has already claimed to possess proof that the regime deployed chemical weapons in Douma. And Western intelligence agencies even apparently tried to smuggle bodies and other evidence out of the town just north of Damascus. American news network MSNBC has likewise reported that the U.S. found evidence of chlorine gas and a nerve agent in urine samples taken from victims.
But the OPCW mission will be a challenging one nonetheless. More than a week has already passed since the suspected attack and the apparent site of the attack wasn’t sealed off. It has been visited by members of the military. Making matters more difficult is the fact that the chemical-weapons investigators have been weakened. Following Russia’s veto last year, the mandate for the international Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was not renewed. Only the JIM was allowed to assign blame, whereas OPCW investigators are not allowed to say anything about who might have been responsible. They are only allowed to clarify which chemicals were used and how they were deployed — which can be enough on its own to solidify suspicions.
It is almost impossible to deny that something horrible must have happened in Douma. Dozens of witnesses like Mohammed Adel have related what they saw. They have spoken of the clattering of the helicopter before it dropped its payload. Of the people who yelled “Chemical weapons! Chemical weapons!” Of the smell of chlorine in the air. The research website Bellingcat analyzed images showing a typical yellow cannister at the site of the kind seen at the sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. The UN Syria Commission has documented 33 deployments of chemical weapons in the country since 2013.
According to the World Health Organization, around 500 patients were treated in Douma who showed symptoms consistent with a chemical gas attack. Forty-three people died, WHO says.
What May Have Motivated Damascus?
But why would the Syrian regime deploy chemical weapons when it is already on the verge of victory? One motive could have been the desire to speed up the withdrawal of the hated rebels from the city. Douma was the last enclave remaining under rebel control. Or was it revenge? The Army of Islam, the Islamist group which controlled Douma, was relatively strong and regularly fired shells at nearby Damascus.
The Islamists long held a trump card in their hand: They were thought to be holding several thousand regime loyalists prisoner. That, however, was an exaggeration with which the Syrian regime sought to mislead its followers, a glimmer of hope that many troops long believed to be dead might still be alive after all. When it became clear that a large number of the presumed prisoners were in fact dead, it came as a painful blow and the thirst for revenge was correspondingly high. The rebels, meanwhile, had lost their trump card.
Mohammed Adel, the witness from Douma who has since fled to northern Syria, still doesn’t want to believe that all is lost for his side. “I still hope that the West will help depose Assad, whether with military pressure or through political negotiations,” he says. “And why do the Russians still need Assad? They control everything anyway. If the West and Russia could reach an agreement to depose Assad, that would be the best solution. Then the refugees, the displaced both within Syria and outside the country, could return to their homes and their land.”
By Christian Esch, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Raniah Salloum and Christoph Scheuermann