Starting as night was turning into morning in Syria on Friday, April 13th, 103 missiles rained down on three targets in that country. The destinations of the strikes were located in the capital, Damascus and the it’s 3rd largest city, Homs. All three were said by representatives of the United States, France and the UK to be engaged in the research, manufacture or storage of what were once called ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’.
The strikes followed widely disseminated video of the aftermath of an alleged April 7th chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, partly held by then retreating rebels, who were being evacuated from the area as part of a deal sponsored by the Russian government.
The victims in the video appeared to have foam coming from their mouths, and the U.S., along with its junior partners, said that they had somehow determined the victims were killed as a result of exposure to chlorine gas, possibly mixed with Sarin, without having visited the site.
Sarin was claimed as the cause of dozens of deaths in an earlier incident in Khan Shaykhun, in northwestern Syria, almost exactly a year before, in April of 2017. This alleged chemical attack, also accompanied by a video that seemed to play on loop in many mainstream outlets, including here in Canada, brought on a swift response: 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles leveled a mostly empty air-base from which the American government said the attack originated.
In the United States, the political and media response to the 2017 strike was generally positive, and few noted that it took place before any investigation had even begun.
The more recent strikes took place a day before inspectors with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were expected to arrive and begin collecting evidence for an investigation. As of this writing, due to instability in the area, the inspectors have yet to begin their work.
While the OPCW as a general rule only identifies the type and use of chemicals rather than fixing blame, they are very familiar with the Syria’s earlier weapons programs due to long running operations in the country. Inspectors have been in the country throughout most of the conflict as the result of an arrangement negotiated by former President Obama and his Russian counterpart to remove the country’s stocks of chemical weapons in 2013.
Having said this, if it was a chlorine bomb dropped in Douma, this substance is not banned under the OPCW as it is so common and has many legitimate uses, but it’s use as a weapon of war is still illegal under international law.
If it can be proven that it was a chlorine or other chemical laden barrel bomb dropped from a Syrian Arab Army helicopter as has been accused, then it should be possible to prosecute the perpetrators and whoever specifically ordered it, regardless of how far it goes up the chain of command. This would require the Syrian government to turn over the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court and would likely require some arm twisting as the country, like the United States, hasn’t signed onto the Rome Statute that created it.
But surely this would be a better way to try and enforce some minimal humanitarian norms than to send almost million dollar missiles at empty buildings in war torn countries where displaced people struggle to find food to eat? It would be very difficult for the Syrian government and even its allies Iran or Russia (which does have a UN Security Council veto, it’s true) to complain if enough evidence is collected of chlorine or other chemical weapons use.
The airstrikes probably mean that such diplomatic options are already off the table, at least for the U.S., France and Britain. Besides, there is already some evidence emerging that contests their interpretation of events in Douma.
Use of chemicals in dispute
As told to the Hindustan Times by an engineer named Said, workers at the three story facility in the center of Damascus reduced to rubble by the strikes were engaged in, “pharmaceutical and chemical research” and, “The OPCW used to stay in the two upper rooms, and use the labs, and we would cooperate with them completely. The OPCW has proven in two reports that this building and the center as a whole are empty and do not produce any chemical weapons.”
Further muddying the waters, Robert Fisk of the UK Independent, who was one of the first English speaking reporters to arrive in Douma, interviewed a local physician, Dr. Assim Rahibani, who said he had treated people the night of the alleged chemical attack.
The video itself is said to have been filmed or at least released by these same White Helmets, who some sources claim are being funded by the west and were trained in Turkey by a shady former officer in the British military, James Le Mesurier. Further, they don’t operate in government controlled areas and are most often found embedded with fighters operating under the umbrella of Jaish al-Islam (The Army of Islam) a collection of Salafists and Islamists many of whom are drawn from what used to be Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusrah.
It seems strange, if not technically impossible, that Bashar Assad’s government would risk the ire of the international community as they close in on victory in rebel held areas around the capital and just after, it should be remembered, President Trump had announced he was going to pull US forces out of the country in the near future.
Regardless, whether or not they used such banned weapons, it doesn’t absolve the Syrian government of its brutality throughout the hostilities anymore than it absolves any of the other state and non-state actors in this conflict, which is believed to have claimed half a million lives. Unspoken and usually unseen, the vast majority of these casualties are the result of perfectly ‘conventional’ weapons.
James Mattis saves the world?
The vast number of missiles launched on April 13th, while expensive, didn’t result in any reported casualties, including among allies fighting alongside the Syrian forces. However, the U.S. President, possibly under the influence of his new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, had apparently considered hitting Iranian and even Russian targets and was, according to multiple sources, dissuaded by his Secretary of Defense, ‘Mad Dog’ James Mattis.
In an April 13th press release ascribed to the Secretary of Defense, Mattis seemed to be trying to justify the strikes in advance, stating, “As our commander in chief, the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend U.S. national interests.”
This statement presupposes that Article II supersedes Article I, Section 8, which reads in part that Congress, not the executive, has the right, “To declare War” and is responsible for raising and supporting the armed forces and navy at such times. As former CIA analyst Roy Mcgovern recently wrote on Consortium News, “Those interested should re-read Article II… All that part of Article II says is, ‘The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.’”
It was later reported by The New York Times that the current President, who may have felt he needed to back up the incredibly bellicose tweets he’d been making, ordered the strikes despite Mattis’ insistence that he seek Congressional approval. Showing a certain skill at deescalation, it seems the Secretary of Defense was at least able to successfully advocate for more limited strikes.
As journalist JP Sottile wrote after the strike, “It was a Mattis masterpiece of shadowy puppet theater designed to give Trump a way out of his self-painted corner. This was a well-crafted face-saving scenario.”
Nonetheless, bereft of his former allies Rex Tillerson and especially former NSA H.R. McMaster, the Secretary’s influence will probably continue to wane in favor of more hawkish voices.
In a related bit of news, a little before the incident in Douma, Newsweek reported that Mattis said there was, “No evidence” of sarin use in the unresolved cases in Ghouta in 2013 or the 2017 incident that provoked last year’s bombing. This statement received much less coverage than the earlier stories that established the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the minds of most citizens in Western countries. It was also entirely ignored in terms of last Friday’s missile launches.
As terrible as this might sound, its notable that these strikes also offered an opportunity for the governments that launched them to field test some newer weapons. With the British, French and Americans all engaged in increasing arms sales, especially in the Middle East, such a display may be intended to show the efficacy of their products, especially to wealthy Gulf monarchs.
Donald Trump has shown an even greater willingness than any of his predecessors to use his office and enlist his subordinates from the cabinet on down to help arms manufacturers make sales as part of his “Buy American” initiative, which includes a “plan to overhaul the Conventional Arms Transfer policy,” intended to make human rights less of a concern when contemplating weapons sales.
It should also be mentioned that the world’s second biggest arms dealer, Russia, has also admitted to using the Syrian battlefield to test new weapons.
While the strikes themselves received generally positive coverage in the mainstream press, this lasted even less time than the last for the U.S. President, who is embattled in ways that defy rational description.
The problem for President Trump was that he made almost no one happy with the bombing. When it became clear that the targets were limited to just three facilities, the media, corporate Democrats and Never-Trump Republicans said it wasn’t enough, the most hawkish among them had been calling for the elimination of Syria’s air-force, something that really would have risked a wider conflict.
Worse, at least for Trump, from a purely domestic political perspective in terms of his base, it appears the President finally alienated a large number of incredibly naive people who made the mistake of believing the occasional anti-interventionist statement made during the campaign (and almost always walked back a few days, or even hours, later).
In the end, it was Trump’s European partners, less mired in tawdry day to day scandals, who would face the wrath not only of the general public and continental opinion, but of other elected representatives in their own legislatures, who it appears they expected to wrap themselves in the flag and praise the unilateral action.
Hopefully, policy makers in the future will realize that drawing ‘red lines’ in terms of conflicts in other countries creates dangers of its own. While we will likely never know for sure whether any of these chemical attacks were even real, the ‘red line’, mentioned by French President Macron as part of his justification for French involvement in the missile strikes, creates an incentive for insurgent groups of all kinds to claim or even engage in such attacks themselves to create the conditions for Western intervention.
In this way, rather than achieving the goal of making the use of this horrible class of weapons less likely, the rhetoric as we’ve heard over the last few weeks may in the long run have the opposite effect.