Chemical Weapons Attack Puts Syria Back On The Front Burner

Just about a year after President Trump attacked Syria over the use of chemical weapons, the Assad regime has again used chemical weapons. There's not much we can do about, nor should we.

A new report of a chemical weapons attack that has killed as many as 40 civilians is putting Syria back on the front burner, but it remains unclear what, if anything, the United States can do to change the situation on the ground:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Anti-government activists accused the Syrian government of attacking a Damascus suburb with poison gas on Saturday as Syrian forces stepped up their campaign to retake the last rebel-held pocket near the capital.

Activists in the suburb of Douma, east of Damascus, shared videos online that showed lifeless men, women and children sprawled on floors with white foam around their mouths. Other footage showed chaotic clinics where medics were hosing down patients and treating them with respirators.

The scale of the attack and the number of people killed were not immediately clear. But rescue workers estimated a death toll in the dozens.

The State Department called the reports ”horrifying” in a statement and said that if they are confirmed, they “demand an immediate response by the international community.”

The attack followed weeks of punishing assaults by the Syrian government and its Russian allies against a group of rebel-held Damascus suburbs known as Eastern Ghouta. Hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands have fled or been bused out as the government has retaken the area. Douma, which is controlled by a rebel group called the Army of Islam, is the last, and the Syrian government and its supporters have made no secret of their determination to take it at any cost.

Syrian state news media denied that any chemical weapons had been used and accused the rebels of fabricating the videos to gain international sympathy.

In its statement, the State Department blamed Syria’s chief ally for the country’s past chemical attacks.

“Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians, and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons,” it said.

A confirmed chemical attack would pose a dilemma for President Trump, who has said he will hold President Bashar al-Assad of Syria accountable for the use of chemical weapons while also saying that he wants to reduce American military involvement in Syria.

After a chemical attack by the Syrian government killed dozens of people in the village of Khan Sheikhoun last April, Mr. Trump responded by ordering the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the air base from which the attacks had originated.

“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

White House spokespersons appearing on the Sunday morning shows are saying that all options are on the table with respect to responding to the attacks and even President Trump himself has spoken strongly on the matter in a few morning Tweets:

Most likely coincidentally, this apparent attack came pretty much one year after President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack against a chemical weapons facility in Syria in the wake of another chemical weapons attack. That attack, though, did little to deter Assad from continuing a war that was aimed at Syrian civilians as much as it was aimed at the rebels that have been waging war against the regime for the past seven years. The air base that was hit during the attack, for example, was back in operation within days after the attack, and it was apparent from the manner in which the Assad regime acted that it didn’t feel the slightest bit constrained by what was clearly just a demonstration attack. In no small part, of course, this was due to the continued support that Assad receives from both Russia and Iran, and both nations seem intent on making sure that their puppet stays in power regardless of the cost to their own international reputations or Syrian civilians. That’s likely to continue after this attack as well.

At the time of Trump’s strike on Syria last year, James Joyner made these observations here at OTB:

This Syrian civil war has been ongoing now for just over six years. Assad has clearly been the “bad guy” from the outset but it was never clear that there was a good guy. The Obama administration talked tough about Assad but didn’t do much about it, correctly recognizing that the options were bad.  The combination of the Russians backing Assad—and thus forestalling action on a UN Security Council on which it wields a veto, a steady fracturing of the Assad opposition forces, intervention by a bewildering array of foreign actors, and the appearance of what would become the Islamic State meant that the options continued to get worse over time.

While Obama made a series of mistakes with regard to Syria—most notably the constant refrain of “Assad must go” and the drawing of the infamous “red line”—he avoided making a catastrophic error. But the result of largely staying out of the civil war (if ultimately not the counter-ISIL fight) has been horrendous: horrific loss of innocent life, unspeakable atrocities, and massive refugee flows.

So, it’s not at all surprising that there has been near-universal proclamation of support for these strikes from our European allies. There had been, as foreign affairs reporter Laura Rozen notes, “a lot of pent-up demand built up against Assad horrors [these] past few years.”

But now what?

The options have not gotten better. It’s almost inconceivable that we’ll risk war with Russia to oust the Assad regime. And, even if we could somehow reach an accommodation with Moscow, it’s not at all clear who would govern Syria post-Assad.

Those same issues remain one year later and will remain long after any retaliation the United States might be contemplating in response to this latest attacks. They also come in the wake of reports that President Trump himself seems unsure about which way he actually wants to proceed when it comes to American policy in Syria. Notwithstanding some reports that he was inclined to withdraw American forces from the country sooner rather than later, the President is being pressed by his military and foreign policy advisers to keep forces in the country, although it’s entirely unclear what they would be doing once the principle concern of dealing with the remnants of ISIS has been largely accomplished. As I made clear in a post just a few days ago, the idea of the United States getting deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is both unwarranted and unjustifiable at this point in time. This is especially true given the fact that it’s entirely likely that what will come after the Assad regime would be, if anything, worse than what we’re seeing right now.

In any case, the eyes of the world will now be on the United States to see how, if it all, the Trump Administration will respond to this latest chemical attack. In many respects, the President’s actions a year ago, notwithstanding the fact that they were largely impotent and ineffective in being anything other than a demonstration attack, have boxed him into a corner to the point where he’s probably required to do something in response to this latest use of chemical weapons attack. At the same time, though, it’s also true that whatever the United States does it will neither bring about the end of the Assad regime nor is it likely to deter Assad from targeting civilians in the future. As long as he has the backing of his allies in Moscow and Tehran, and there is every indication that this will continue to be the case, he will continue with his current strategy and, most likely, will still be in power even if it means that this civil war lasts in some form into the next decade. Given that, it would be best if we didn’t get any further involved in Syria than we already are, because getting involved further is likely to only end in disaster for us.



FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In any case, the eyes of the world will now be on the United States to see how, if it all, the Trump Administration will respond to this latest chemical attack.

    He’ll just bomb another empty airbase after giving his pal Putin the heads up. Just like he did last time. And of course blame Obama for making him do it.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It’s begun to penetrate Trump’s tiny, porcine brain that the entire damn world has noticed him fellating Putin and that his servility is seen as evidence of. . . well, of his servility.

    At the same time, Putin, swelled up with his own magnificence after getting Trump elected, has overreached so badly that even Trump can’t just keep gagging it down. Putin tries to murder people in London in the most extravagantly lurid way possible, which brings the Brits and the EU into play and delay as much as he dare, Trump is forced to actually start applying the sanctions Congress forced on him a year ago.

    Trump must be feeling like an abused spouse. Try as he might he just can’t seem to make Putin happy. He has the GOP position changed on Ukraine, he trashes NATO, he praises dictators, he refuses to offer reassurance to the Baltics, he shrugs off past Putin murders, he alienates every ally we have, he refuses to implement sanctions, he even offers to get out of Syria so Putin can have it all to himself.

    I just want to make him happy! Am I not spouse enough for him?

    But it’s never enough. Next cocktail party Putin still humiliates Trump publicly by attempting a “Hey, look, it’s us the Russians!” murder in a NATO capital and turns a blind eye to (or more likely encourages) a Syrian chemical attack. The story has gotten away from both Trump and Putin, as plots so often do.

    It’s the uncomfortable merger of two incompatible law firms: Greedy, Crooked and Stupid, meet Thuggish, Arrogant and Poor. One side armed with the world’s largest economy, the other side armed with pee-pee tapes. Gosh, this is a great show. If you forget the nukes.

  3. Kathy says:

    It’s time to either piss of get off the pot.

    The former may mean Vietnam on the Mediterranean, with the added chance of hitting Russian forces in the process. Not a good combination.

    Much as it would be gratifying to put all the responsibility on Trump, fact is it belongs to the US voters, who kept putting presidents with little or no foreign policy experience in the White House.

  4. Mister Bluster says:

    Many dead, including women and children, in mindless firearms attack in Las Vegas.
    No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

    If President Obama had confiscated all the guns like the looney tunes thought he would…

    The story has gotten away from both Trump and Putin, as plots so often do.
    So did saner heads prevail in October of 1962 or were we just lucky?

    Ellsberg said that Robert Kennedy (RFK) told him in 1964 that after the U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed, he (RFK) told Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, “You have drawn first blood … . [T]he president had decided against advice … not to respond militarily to that attack, but he [Dobrynin] should know that if another plane was shot at, … we would take out all the SAMs and antiaircraft … . And that would almost surely be followed by an invasion.”

    Very close to launching thermonuclear war
    Depth charges against a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear weapons

    Later that same day, what the White House later called “Black Saturday,” the US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades) on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was “hulled” (a hole in the hull from depth charges or surface fire). The decision to launch these required agreement from all three officers on board, but one of them, Vasili Arkhipov, objected and so the launch was narrowly averted. WikiP

  5. Scott says:

    In that same posting of James Joyner (which had 148 comments and vigorous discussion) that you quoted, I wrote:

    At this point, like most, I have more questions than opinions. Generally, my position is that we should stay the hell out. Without a clear adversary, clear objectives, and a clear path, there is too many variables to sort out and reach a successful conclusion. But here are some observations:

    1) This strike probably won’t change anything. At this point, it is violent symbolism

    2) Weakening Assad strengthens ISIS and other radical Sunni groups. It will also lengthen the Syrian civil war and prevent it reaching conclusion.

    3) I wonder if this was a subtle manipulation by Russia to see how Trump reacts to events though I don’t like the implication that Putin is so ruthless that chemical killing of civilians can be planned and executed.

    4) Second and Third order effects are totally unpredictable.

    5) I don’t think the American people would put up with putting more troops at risk. Special Forces maybe but not regular Armed Forces.

    Pretty much feel the same today. We have basically ceded principal influence of Syria to Russia and Iran. With the Kurds we have beaten ISIS. If Trump were smart, he would declare mission accomplished and pull out totally. I would agree with that.

  6. TM01 says:

    @michael reynolds: “It’s begun to penetrate Trump’s tiny, porcine brain that the entire damn world has noticed him fellating Putin and that his servility is seen as evidence of. . . well, of his servility.”

    Do you have an original thought in your head?

    You sound more and more deranged every time you post.
    Leave Syria? Fellatio!
    Stay! Putin wants us there still!
    US forces kill hundreds of Russian troops in Syria? Grumble grumble… ignore… More Putin.

    This whole Stooge Of Putin thing is getting old and tiresome. Get a new meme.

  7. teve tory says:

    Was it 2 years ago that trump was tweeting that the if the US strikes syria for chem attacks, Obama will look bad? Now he says Obama shoulda done something.

  8. Kathy says:
  9. Kathy says:

    @teve tory:

    Here’s a link to the contrasting Tweets on Facebook.

  10. teve tory says:

    So it was 5 years ago. Jesus, Trump doesn’t even understand who would be crossing the “red line”. God what an idiot.

  11. CSK says:

    According to the Trumpkins, it’s neither Putin nor Assad who’s responsible for this. It’s the Deep State, trying to sabotage Trump.

  12. Gustopher says:

    Chemical weapons are beyond the pale, and we need to keep them from being normalized.

    We should respond, but we should do something more than a pinprick attack on an airfield that will be repaired and running in a few days.

    My instinct would be to bomb Assad’s personal property, or some government buildings where the decision to use the chemical weapons was likely made. A much more pointed and targeted pinprick, but still a significant escalation. Try not to hit Assad, maybe ever warn the Russians, and thus Assad shortly beforehand so they can evacuate.

  13. CSK says:


    But Trump is a stooge of Putin.

  14. Slugger says:

    We should not allow ourselves to be inured to murderous attacks on non-combatants. I am o.k. with the POTUS expressing outrage. I don’t think Twitter is the correct venue, and clearly Trump does not have a Churchillian command of language.
    Are there specific actions we should take? Many of our actions in the last 75 years, especially in the Levant, have had unwelcome results. There is no reason to think that the USA is a member of the Green Lantern league.
    I do think that if we pursue independence from petrochemical energy sources it would lower the stakes over there; tribal war will continue but without international repercussions and without generating a couple of million refugees to destabilize Europe.
    My slogan: Solar not soldiers.

  15. CSK says:

    The IDF has commenced air strikes against Syria.

    Edit: Maybe not Israel. Somebody attacked a base, killing 14 Iranians. France and the U.S. have denied doing so. The reports are very conflicted and confusing.

  16. R. Dave says:

    Syria is a perfect example, in my opinion, of the kind of situation where an attack targeted on Assad himself is the only thing that will work. I’m not talking about an assassination squad; just a few cruise missiles targeted at command and control facilities that “happen” to include his personal living quarters. Guys like Assad don’t care how much of their country we destroy or how many of their soldiers we kill as long as they’re still in power at the end of the day. Since we lack the national will (and perhaps the national interest) to get into a full scale regime change war, they know we aren’t a threat to their personal interests, so they act with impunity. Put them on notice that their own lives at risk by sending a cruise missile into their living room though, and they’ll start to think twice.