By Haid Haid
17 Apr 2018
Following the recent debate on the use of chemical attacks in Syria, someone asked on Twitter what was missing from the conversation. A one-word response came from a prominent Syrian activist and campaigner: “Syrians”. This echoes the feelings of many people I have spoken to inside Syria, including my family.
The recent discussion among western decision-makers has been mainly focused on deterring future chemical attacks in Syria. While this objective is no doubt important, not much has been said to reflect what is wanted by the civilians who have been targeted by the Assad regime and its backers for nearly seven years – and that’s a solution that can protect them and lead to a negotiated settlement.
The joint strikes by the US, France and Britain are supposed to have targeted three chemical weapons facilities. The military intervention was ordered as punishment for the Assad regime, which carried out a number of chemical attacks on the rebel-held town of Douma in rural Damascus on 7 April. A declassified French intelligence report confirmed that pro-regime forces had carried out several such attacks, using choking agents and organophosphorus agents or hydrocyanic acid. At least 40 people are thought to have died from exposure to a chemical substance. In an obvious attempt not to escalate tensions with the Assad regime’s backers, Russia and Iran, the western governments have stuck consistently to the line that these strikes are only about deterring future use of chemical attacks. But what of the wider conflict and suffering?
While the strikes may succeed in briefly stopping the use of these barbaric instruments of war, as they did after last year’s strike, it seems unlikely that they will completely prevent the future use of chemical weapons. US officials have stated that the strikes will set the Syrian chemical weapons programme back for years. But the combined military offensive against the regime was more modest than expected. The strikes did not fully eliminate Assad’s chemical capabilities, as was acknowledged by the joint chiefs of staff chairman, Gen Joseph Dunford. Moreover, many Syrians suspect that the regime, which was expecting its chemical facilities to be targeted because of the Douma attack, may have moved its chemical stocks to secret locations.
In any case, the way to prevent future chemical attacks is unlikely to be limiting the supply of toxic materials – the regime either has more or can produce more. The solution is clear accountability measures against the use of all prohibited chemical materials, whatever the scale. The threshold for the west responding militarily to the regime’s chemical attacks remains ill-defined. As a result, the Assad regime has for years been able to use, to varying frequencies and degrees, chemical weapons in its attacks on rebel-held areas, without any punishment or strong international condemnation. A recent Human Rights Watch report has documented and confirmed at least 85 chemical weapon attacks in Syria since August 2013. Even though the report indicates that the Syrian regime is responsible for the majority of them, only twice has there been a response. So why would they not, therefore, take advantage of this to continue to use limited amounts of chemical materials in future attacks without triggering any reaction.
While Syrians opposing the regime are aware that the US and its European allies have no interest in changing the outcome of the Syrian conflict, some of them, at least, have desperately hoped that western powers may help to increase the prospects of a political settlement. The mounting pressure in the week that preceded the tripartite strikes caused panic inside the Syrian regime. Military hardware was relocated, either to Russian-occupied bases or to civilian areas, in order to prevent their destruction. Local contacts have also told me that the number of airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime was reduced significantly, which cut down the number of civilian casualties. But the US and its key allies did not try to take advantage of this moment, where for the first time there was agreement on using direct military force against the Syrian regime, to pressure both Russia and Bashar al-Assad to agree to serious talks on political transition in Syria.
“It is ironic to see that the tension that preceded the strikes against the regime has saved more lives than the actual strikes,” one teacher from the countryside around Aleppo told me. “The Syrian regime resumed its airstrikes against civilians in opposition-held areas as soon as the western-led strikes were over. In a way, Assad felt relieved that the international community was still not concerned with the rest of his weapons that kill us on a daily basis.”
The regime has in the past submitted to serious military threats without the use of force, such as when the Syrian army was forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 due to international pressure. That was achieved without any large-scale military intervention, but the lack of willingness to couple this latest military action with any political strategy has cost many Syrians what may be their last opportunity for optimism about the country’s future.
“It is hard to be optimistic when almost every single scenario imaginable will either lead to your death or your submission to a regime that will stop at nothing to stay power,” says Rami Hassan, a citizen journalist in the last rebel-held pocket in Homs. “I, stupidly, hoped that the US would not keep repeating the same mistake, time and again, by focusing only on symptoms of the conflict, but rather pressure the regime to accept a political solution. They had the chance to do that but decided not to.”
Any attempt to make the Assad regime pay a price, no matter how small, is welcomed by its victims. But this missed opportunity allows the regime to continue to use unconscionable, brutal tactics to bring all opposition to Assad – wherever it might be – to its knees, and consolidate victory not only in Syria’s present but its future as well.
• Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme