Before the chlorine came the bombs. And before the bombs came the siege. Douma, the largest settlement in in eastern Ghouta, part of the surrounds of the Syrian capital, Damascus, had suffered greatly in the country’s civil war, which is in its eighth year.
Along with the rest of eastern Ghouta, Douma had been under siege for more than five years, its population cut off, unable to access medical supplies and food, unable to leave the area. For years, an outpost of opposition had remained a few miles from the seat of authority in Damascus, a reminder of the limits of the power of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the hereditary president.
This year, the siege of eastern Ghouta intensified and mutated. it became a matter of liquidation, as the regime’s forces, in combination with their international allies and proxies, first began a severe bombardment of Ghouta, and finally moved troops in to retake the territory.
The bombs fell and the casualties mounted. Parts of the enclave fell in succession to the advancing forces of the regime. Douma, occupied by the Islamist faction Jaysh al-Islam, was the last settlement holding out against this advance.
It had suffered an alleged chemical attack in February, an incident in which missiles apparently containing chlorine landed in Douma on February 1 and injured over 20 civilians. But what came during the liquidation of eastern Ghouta was worse.
On the morning of April 7, cylinders were dropped from helicopters above Douma. These cylinders contained an agent which, when released, killed over 50 people and injured an estimated 500, according to medical staff. Footage rapidly emerged of medical workers attempting to decontaminate some civilians with water, and to resuscitate others. Other video shows corpses, many of them with foaming mouths and other symptoms telling of exposure to chemical agents.
Aid agencies and medical charities began to collate evidence of the attack, and the intelligence services of Britain, France and the Untied States began to piece together their own reports of what had happened. The early consensus held that the attack had included chlorine, a chemical weapon commonly used by the Assad regime. It was less clear whether the attack had also included sarin, a nerve agent less commonly employed, but with its own history of use in the Syrian war.
Sarin had been used by the regime to attack Ghouta in August 2013, where its use had almost, but not quite, compelled international retaliation. In April 2017, a year before the attack on Douma, the United States had struck an airbase to punish the regime for its likely use of sarin to murder civilians in Khan Sheikhun.
Chlorine attacks occurred with frequency; they were not punished. But the use of sarin – and sarin alone – constituted a ‘red line’ for the Trump administration. If sarin were used, it would be compelled by its own rhetoric and the precedent of past actions to intervene to punish the regime. Similarly, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had repeatedly promised that, were chemical weapons used in Syria, France would – in tandem with allies of on its own – strike to punish the perpetrators. Macron had, until April, failed to make good on his promise.
The exact composition of the gas which killed in Douma is still unclear; whether sarin was included remains unknown. But the uncommonly high death toll caught international attention and prompted international action.
In the week that followed the attack, the regime and its Russian backers attempted to dissemble and confuse. Regime and Russian advocates spread numerous false and misleading stories about what had happened in Douma in a bid to muddy the waters; they each threatened a military response if retributive strikes were made; and Russia in particular held out the possibility of escalation, including to the extent of threatening a nuclear conflict.
This situation made an inconsistent week seem less certain. Several times, it appeared that the Americans and allies were about to strike, only for US officials to signal that more time was needed or that they were considering other options. When a regime airbase in Homs governate was struck overnight on April 9, observers assumed that this was the anticipated American retribution. This was not true; instead, complicating the picture, that attack was likely carried out by Israel, which has been consistently striking Iranian-linked targets within Syria for years.
Eventually, on April 12, President Trump stood in front of the world’s media to announce that American, French and British forces were engaged in action against the regime. Overnight, excited reports of strikes flooded social media. In the light of the morning, it seemed the allied strikes were considerably less significant than had been anticipated.
Unlike Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign in 1998 which inflicted real damage on the military of Saddam Hussein, the allied effort had been strictly limited – both in scope and intention. Only three sites were struck. They were all, France, Britain and the United States avowed, directly connected to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme. But there was no wider campaign to punish the regime for its crimes, no attempt to change the course or character of the Syrian war.
The essential nature of that war has settled into place. After the retreat of the Islamic State (ISIS) from its major urban holdings, the Syrian war has consolidated.
Despite the vast assistance it has received from its international allies, Russia and Iran, the Assad regime is in no way close to the total victory it envisions and its state media forecasts. It holds the capital, Damascus, and most of the major provincial capitals, including cities like Homs and Aleppo which were previously strong bastions of the armed opposition. The regime also controls the country’s Mediterranean coastline, notably Latakia, which is the heartland for the Alawite sect from which the Assad family originates.
The regime has benefitted from the collapse of ISIS in Syria’s east, but not as much as Syria’s Kurdish factions, which have largely been organised under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is the primary proxy of the American-led coalition ranged against the Islamic State, and as such served as the coalition’s ‘boots on the ground’ in various anti-ISIS campaigns east of the Euphrates. It took Raqqa from the Islamic State and holds its territory firmly, protected by the air power of the coalition.
In February, when forces aligned with the regime tried to cross the Euphrates to attack SDF positions, they were viciously counterattacked by American airpower and artillery; hundreds of fighters, many of them Russian mercenaries, were wiped out. Days ago, a similar probing attack was launched by pro-regime forces against SDF positions, with the same result: the pro-regime advance captured several villages in Deir Ezzor, before being repelled by coalition and Kurdish forces.
This suggests that the SDF will be secure in the areas it occupies, and any attempt – at least by the regime – to dislodge or weaken Kurdish forces will be halted with extreme force, or meet with reprisal. In this, if nothing else, the United States has shown a consistent wiliness to punish the aggression of the regime.
Things are more difficult when it comes to assessing how other forces interact with the SDF and its affiliates. Turkey has launched two major operations along its border with Syria. In combination with Syrian opposition groups, which have reconfigured into what Turkish officials are calling the Syrian ‘National Army’, Turkish forces launched Operation Euphrates Shield, which captured large swathes of territory from the Islamic State during ISIS’ most dangerous phase.
After the SDF was chosen by the coalition to capture Raqqa instead of the Euphrates Shield forces, Turkey did not stop there. It launched a second operation to capture the Afrin canton in Aleppo province, which was controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist organisation which has fought the Turkish state for decades.
Operation Olive Branch, as this advance was ironically termed, seemed initially to be bogged down. Progress was slow. But eventually, Turkey not only secured its border with Syria, but also took Afrin city without much of a fight. Now Turkey feels secure enough to threaten Manbij, a city in Aleppo province controlled by the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council (MMC).
In combination, the two Turkish-backed rebel zones in northern Syria are expansive and largely unthreatened by other forces. And Turkish influence extends further, including the country’s sway among some Islamist groups. This notably includes the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group, which has recently banded together with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement to form the Syrian Liberation Front (JTS) in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. It has scored major successes against the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) and latterly Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).
Syria’s armed opposition must not be forgotten. Rebels are in retreat in much of Syria, especially as rebel enclaves, which had held out for years under brutal sieges, are bombed to rubble, occupied and depopulated as the inhabitants and surviving fighters are bussed out (often to Idlib, but at least once recently to Turkish- and rebel-administered Afrin). But they are not to be counted out.
Rebel groups still hold territory in Syria’s south, notably on both the Jordanian border and bordering the Golan Heights, through which rebels and Syrians living in rebel territory can receive medical aid from Israel.
Rebel pockets in the south and in the northern province of Idlib may soon come under increasing pressure from the regime. But Syria’s rebels, feeling desperate and fearing the worst, are hardly going to stop fighting any time soon. If depopulation or even ‘extermination’ is the result of surrender, surrender is unlikely to be given lightly. Support from Turkey has also provided an avenue for rebel groups to entrench themselves amid the protection of an outside force and to make advances in local governance and civil organisation which are essential for their long-term success and survival.
With the war set in place, the options for the United States and its allies may seem various. Total withdrawal has been promised by the American president. But this is undermined by the continued American participation in Operation Inherent Resolve and, more specifically, by Trump’s secretary of defence, James Mattis, who said that the United States would remain in Syria until there is peace – something hardly visible on the horizon. It is also expected that a strategy articulated by the former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, which requires a long-term American presence in Syria, remains in play.
The United States has also mooted the possibility of mustering an ‘Arab force’ drawn from nearby nations to administer northern Syria. Despite the willingness of some Arab allies, this plan has not elicited positive notices. The continued conflict between the Gulf states presents one stumbling block. Another is the understandable outright unwillingness of other states for their soldiers to be effectively contracted to fight America’s wars. In any case, an Arab army would only operate in northern Syria under the aerial protection and with the blessing of the United States, necessitating a longer American commitment than Trump would wish, and possibly an indefinite one.
It seems likely, therefore, that the United States and allies will not only continue to provide massive support in the continuing campaign against the Islamic State, but also to defend territory held by the SDF from incursion. This is seen to be strategically necessary, if not desirable.
But the Americans must choose a path based, not only on strategic expediency, but also morality. Syria’s civil war is only becoming more violent and the population more brutalised. As the stuff of civilian life is systematically destroyed by the regime and its allies, and much of the country is depopulated ahead of regime advances, the pressure on Syria’s borders and neighbouring countries can only increase as civilians try to flee the horror.
They are fleeing not only the war but its originator: the Assad regime. While the regime remains in place and continues to prosecute its war effort as it does, there can be no security, no peace, no reconstruction.
The United States and its allies have signalled this month that they are willing to acknowledge chemical war crimes, and willing to act in order both to punish the use of chemical weapons and to try to prevent further atrocities. They can continue along this path, establishing clear consequences for the regime’s chemical crimes and hoping that this makes committing acts of chemical warfare too costly for the regime to countenance.
This approach is less than perfect. The regime is more than happy to risk retaliation if it gets what it wants; and its use of chemical weapons in Douma delivered the regime the surrender of its enemies. Only a truly strong military response, from as many nations as would be willing to join, could truly disincentivise the regime from committing chemical crimes. Unless the Assad regime is made to pay a serious price for using chemical weapons, and not merely inconvenienced, it will continue using them.
And this is to say nothing of its continued capacity – and willingness – to commit crimes as vicious and barbaric using non-chemical means. Only when the regime’s capacity to wage war is wound up and its survival threatened will it feel in any way inclined to cease employing its more barbaric tactics, and begin to give peace a chance.
This is intended as a companion piece to the essay, co-written with Kyle Orton, which was published at CapX last week.