The US strike on a Syrian military airport yesterday (6th April 2017) seems to send shockwaves around a stunned public which experiences a difficult time to assess this event. Opponents of Trump’s presidency attribute the attack to his erratic behavior, feel vindicated that he is a hypocrite because he promised to “stay out” of a war in the Middle East, point at his tweets from few years ago in which he stated that Obama should stay out of Syria and maintain that he only wants to divert attention from his investigations over ties with Russia. However, some people, even among his opponents, concede that perhaps it was not that bad to conduct the attack in order to compel the Assad government from using chemical weapons. Lastly, there are some in the US who do not know if this strike is good or bad but complain that president Trump should have asked Congress for approval beforehand (he does not have to). Among all these voices who rejoice repeating strange assumptions about the event, it is hard to find anyone who actually looks at the current situation in Syria. Let us debunk some myths that surround this rollercoaster of emotions that is apparent in media at the moment.
Assumptions floating around in conversations and media
The first assumption which floats around is that the Syrian government is “winning” the war inside the country and therefore had no need to use chemical weapons in first place. Everything what we see now is some kind of conspiracy. It does not matter how one twists it, but this is far from the truth. The Syrian territory is heavily divided among so many actors that it is difficult to decide where to start. Northern Syria is almost completely under control of Kurdish forces who do not obey commands from Assad. Additionally, Turkey, a long-time adversary of Assad, has seized territory and is not willing to recede. Although Aleppo fell to Syrian forces, large chunks in the North and South are still held by (Islamist) rebel groups. Lastly, at least one quarter of Syrian territory is occupied by ISIS. To make matters worse for the Syrian government, local warlords who are only tentatively loyal to Assad control large swathes of the country. Furthermore, the government is completely dependent on support by its external backers Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. Just three weeks ago, Al-Nusra attacked the capital Damascus what is not really a sign for overarching stability over government controlled territory. The peace talks in Geneva crumbled and the current ones in Astana do not bode well. If this is what people believe “winning” means, then I do not want to be a winner.
The second assumption is that there was no rationale for the Assad regime to use chemical weapons and to risk anything. This is far from the truth. Unfortunately and abhorrently, targeting civilians is nothing that defies war time logic. It aims to demoralize those who defy the government advances. The use of chemical weapons got unpunished in 2013, why not now again. Nobody believed at the moment when the chemical weapons were used that the US will intervene and this for a good reason.
The third assumption is that the Syrian civil war is all about ISIS (and Al Nusra). This is also far from the truth. Following many predictions, ISIS is on a losing strike. All actors are positioning themselves for the post-ISIS period and for Western countries including the US it looks rather bleak. The Syrian civil war provided Russia with a permanent base in Syria. Assad is supporter of Iran and Hezbollah what runs counter to the interests of regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Additionally, NATO ally Turkey has deep resentments against Western backed Kurdish advances. Clausewitz wrote in his famous book “On War” that one should never forget the time after a war in order to understand the actions and resolve during war.
The fourth assumption is that the attack is out of the order and unprecedented. This is also as far from the truth as it can be. The United States destroyed radar stations of Huthi rebels in Yemen some months ago. Furthermore, Israel struck several times Syrian military facilities (last time three weeks ago) which it deemed to be conducive for Hezbollah. Lastly, the US “unintentionally” killed over 60 Syrian soldiers in Palmyra six months ago in an attack on ISIS.
The fifth assumption is that the UN has to deal with the chemical weapon attack. However, there is a lot of frustration about the UN failing to approve a resolution introduced by the US, UK and France to denounce the use of these weapons due to a Russian blockade and an insistence on a UN investigation first.
Convergence of information
For a sober analysis, we have to take into account what happened in the past, look at the present and think about the future. The airstrike fits neatly into a sequence of events surrounding the civil war in Syria and is not out of the order. Bystander countries approve or disprove the strike along lines of interests (UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel are content with the strike; Russia and Iran denounce it). Furthermore, the timing is due to a window of opportunity opened up by the use of chemical weapons in Syria and seized by the US government to show force, demarcate (red) lines, and remind everyone that it wants to be part of the final outcome in the Middle East. Even without the chemical weapon attack, a US strike was never out of the spectrum of conceivable action. It also signals North Korea that the US is not scared to engage in action even if a country is under the umbrella of a major power. Coincidently, this happens during the visit of the Chinese president to the United States. For the Assad government the event proved how vulnerable it is and that Russia is not able to protect it if the US takes such actions. This event yesterday will remind him and others what happened to Qaddafi.