Someone Retaliated Against Syria for Latest Chemical Attack
A response to one of the most deadly chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war has come, probably from Israel. What's next?
President Trump has been signaling an intention to withdraw from the conflict in Syria, now that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” there is largely defeated. A particularly gruesome chemical attack by the Assad regime yesterday appears to have sparked a course reversal.
NYT (“As Trump Seeks Way Out of Syria, New Attack Pulls Him Back In“):
Days after President Trump said he wanted to pull the United States out of Syria, Syrian forces hit a suburb of Damascus with bombs that rescue workers said unleashed toxic gas.
Within hours, images of dead families sprawled in their homes threatened to change Mr. Trump’s calculus on Syria, possibly drawing him deeper into an intractable Middle Eastern war that he hoped to leave.
“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. He blamed Iran and Russia — even singling out President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by name — for their support of the Syrian government.
“Big price to pay,” he wrote, without providing details.
His homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert, said the White House national security team had been discussing possible responses and would not rule out a missile strike.
The reported chemical attack on Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, on Saturday seems to have squeezed Mr. Trump between conflicting impulses, and raised the political and military stakes as he charts the United States’ future in Syria.
On one hand, he has emphatically expressed his desire to bring American troops home as soon as possible in line with his “America First” approach. On the other, he has vowed to punish some bad actors, and withdrawing from Syria could open him up to criticism at home and abroad.
“The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria now would have major negative repercussions for the region and beyond,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-American professor of international relations at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
While chemical weapons use has been routine in this conflict, these were among the worst.
NYT (“Dozens Suffocate in Syria as Government Is Accused of Chemical Attack“):
Dozens of Syrians choked to death after a suspected chemical attack struck the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus, with aid groups on Sunday blaming President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the assault and Western governments expressing outrage.
Rescue workers in Syria reported finding at least 42 people dead in their homes from apparent suffocation, and antigovernment activists circulated videos of lifeless men, women and children sprawled out on floors and in stairwells, many with white foam coming from their mouths and nostrils.
A stream of patients with burning eyes and breathing problems were rushed to clinics after the attack at dusk on Saturday, medical and rescue groups said.
The attack appeared to break the will of Douma’s rebels, who agreed on Sunday to a deal with the government to hand the area over and be bused to another area outside government control in the country’s north. Thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives are expected to leave soon.
The latest atrocity in Syria’s agonizing seven-year civil war drew immediate condemnation from the United States and the European Union, but Mr. Assad’s allies in Moscow and Tehran dismissed allegations of a chemical attack as “bogus.”
The British Foreign Office called for an urgent investigation and said that if the use of chemical weapons proved to be true, “it is further proof of Assad’s brutality.”
Someone has reportedly retaliated using American-made fighter jets. While the initial surmise was that it was the United States, the accusations turned to Israel.
WaPo (“Syria says strike on military base carried out by Israeli warplanes“):
A missile strike on an air base in central Syria was carried out by Israeli warplanes in the early hours of Monday morning causing multiple casualties, according to the Syrian and Russian governments, amid fears of renewed regional confrontation.
Israeli officials did not immediately comment on the reports. The raid on the T4 airfield in Homs province comes as tensions rise over possible U.S. military action in Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb late Saturday.
U.S. officials say they were weighing options to strike Syrian government targets and at first Syria’s state news agency blamed the strike on the United States. It later backtracked following Pentagon denials.
“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
While the US sometimes issues denials for clandestine activities like drone strikes, I can’t recall a modern example of denying this sort of attack—let alone in a conflict where we’ve already conducted numerous overt actions. And Israel is certainly a plausible suspect here.
A Syrian military source and the Russian Defense Ministry said Israeli F-15 fighter jets carried out Monday’s strike from Lebanese airspace.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the 14 killed were either Iranian forces or Iran-backed proxies supporting the Syrian government.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian government, and has deployed forces and assets inside Syria, including a network of pro-government fighters it uses as shock troops in battles with Syrian rebels.
Israel has grown increasingly alarmed as Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, extend their military reach and influence in the region, including an expanded presence near Israel’s northern border.
In February, Israel confirmed that it had targeted the same airfield in Homs, after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. Eight warplanes were used in that attack, Israel’s military said, including one F-16 fighter jet that was downed by Syrian antiaircraft fire.
“The timing of the strike isn’t coincidental,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy.
“By striking [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] and his Iranian allies just a day after Trump warned them of the price they would pay … Israel mitigates the risk of an Iranian response,” he said. “Israel has been trying to convince Washington to adopt a more pro-active, anti-Iran strategy in Syria, and certainly sees Trump’s rhetoric in the wake of the chemical attack as an opportunity.”
As always, the question after these strikes is What now? Is there a strategy to disarm Assad or end this bloody conflict? Or is this just a show of force in order to give the illusion of “doing something”?