November 18, 2018

Strikeout Over Syria?

The United States, Great Britain and France on April 13 launched a coordinated military strike targeting three chemical weapons facilities in Syria, in response to the reported use of such weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad the previous week in Douma. The Western intervention — the most significant during the seven-year Syrian civil war, with some 100 missiles having been fired — received mixed reviews in Washington, London and Paris, with some praising the resolve of leaders to uphold the longstanding international norm of preventing the use of nonconventional weapons, whereas others maintained that Assad got off too easy or altogether denounced the West’s interjection of itself into another war abroad.

Where the Middle East is concerned, much of the public, as well as some governments, are perennially weary of any Western involvement in regional conflicts, especially in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO operation that removed from power longtime Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Given that coalition forces did not uncover stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Libya (in fact, there is evidence that Saddam Hussein transferred them to Syria), and taking into account that Tripoli had voluntarily ended its nuclear program in exchange for better relations with the West, many are skeptical that the latest attack was, in fact, geared toward preventing Assad’s use of chemical arms rather than advancing Western interests.

There is a divide largely along political and religious lines, with Shiite-ruled countries aligned with Iran, Assad’s main backer along with Russia, having denounced the attack. For instance, the defense minister of Lebanon — controlled by Tehran’s Hezbollah proxy, which itself is heavily involved in the fighting in Syria — described the mission as “a flagrant violation of international law.” Iraq, which is increasingly being pulled into the Islamic Republic’s orbit, warned that such action “threatens the security and stability of the region and gives terrorism another opportunity to expand.”

By contrast, Sunni Muslim states, led by Saudi Arabia, expressed support for the Western strikes, with the Arab League having called for an international probe into the “criminal” use of chemical weapons. Nonetheless, some analysts deemed the reaction relatively muted, perhaps a reflection of the concern on the part of Persian Gulf states that the U.S. could use the mission as a pretext to pull American troops out of Syria.

The destroyed Scientific Research Centre is seen in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

“[The Western attack on Syria] was very limited, as it was designed to show Assad that there will be consequences any time he uses chemical weapons against his people, but at the same time not to make the Russians mad.” — Gad Shimron

Sulaiman Al-Akeily, a Saudi political analyst, said that, given its limited scope, the attack did not achieve its intended effect — a position shared by many in Riyadh, which may explain why King Salman made no mention of it during a high-profile summit the next day.

“The strikes served only to give Assad legitimacy because [they] did not reduce his military power and his position on the ground was not weakened,” Al-Akeil said. “Moreover, the operation did not cover enough locations in Syria, especially strategic military bases, which are the most important things to be destroyed. It also did not target any Iranian assets.”

Instead, Al-Akeily contended that the West’s motivation was “to wash away the guilt” of having done relatively little to prevent Assad’s massacres. But even this, he explained, was largely a show, given that “the Syrian regime was threatened for a whole week, which gave it time to transfer chemical weapons to Russian warehouses.”

Eran Singer, an Israeli political analyst specializing in the Arab world, agreed that the Western assault had little effect on the overall dynamics of the war, an assessment reinforced by former Mossad agent Gad Shimron. “It achieved the goal of putting restrictions on Assad’s regime,” Singer said. “The Syrian government is still winning many battles around the country, and this will not change.”

Shimron, while describing the strikes as moderately successful, stressed that the operation should have been broader in scope: “It was very limited, as it was designed to show Assad that there will be consequences any time he uses chemical weapons against his people, but at the same time not to make the Russians mad.”

Hanna Issa, a Palestinian law professor, slammed the Western “aggression,” which he argued contravened international law. “It is totally unacceptable for three countries that are members of the [United Nations] Security Council to behave like that,” he said. Furthermore, he noted that the attack occurred before international inspectors arrived in Douma to investigate whether chemical weapons had indeed been used.

Despite the criticism, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley asserted that the strikes were “justified, legitimate and proportionate,” adding that U.S. military forces remained “locked and loaded” in the event Assad were to use nonconventional arms in the future.