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Trump striking Assad was a good start, but needs to go further

April 7, 2017 at 8:55 am

US President Donald Trump ( Samuel Corum – Anadolu Agency )

Earlier this morning, US President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike launched from two US Navy warships in the eastern Mediterranean. Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles – the same kind that regularly fell on Iraq between 1991 and 2003 – completely disabled the Syrian regime’s Shayrat airbase in Homs governorate in central Syria, destroying at least 14 Russian-made bombers. According to a press release issued by Trump, the airbase was targeted because the United States had identified it as the source of the deadly Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack in Idlib that killed around 100 men, women and children. While Trump’s actions indicate a split with previous US policy on Syria, it arguably does not go far enough.

Assad now must think twice

 So far, the Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Assad has been able to act with near total impunity thanks to support from Russia, Iran and, of course, American indifference, weak leadership and short-sighted strategic vision. The Russians – alongside the Chinese on occasions – protected the Assad regime from resolutions in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) before Russia militarily intervened in September 2015 and shifted Al-Assad’s near defeat into a near victory a year on by finally crushing the anti-Assad opposition in Syria’s northern economic powerhouse Aleppo. Russia also maintained its position as the number one supplier of most of the armaments used by the Assad regime to slaughter the Syrian people en masse.

A caricature of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad feeding children toxic waste.

A caricature of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad feeding children toxic waste.

Iran militarily intervened on Al-Assad’s side far earlier than Russia and was in fact involved in quashing the Syrian uprising from the very beginning of the revolution in 2011. Iran not only sent arms and money to prop up the regime but also despatched tens of thousands of terrorist Shia jihadists, including the Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani jihadists.

Worst of all, however, is that this could all have been avoided if the United States under then-President Barack Obama did not fall for the Assad regime’s ploy of turning the Syrian Revolution into an overinflated “jihadist” threat emanating from Daesh. Rather than recognise that Al-Assad was trying to justify his claims that all who stood against him were terrorists, irrespective of their connections to Daesh or Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, Obama did nothing in Syria apart from posing-by-oratory, condemning the regime in speeches that had about the same efficacy of the mewling of a cowering kitten rather than the roar of a powerful lion.

The US never directly struck the Assad regime and allowed him to literally get away with murder of the genocidal variety. US airstrikes were instead focused on Daesh terrorists who had been responsible for the deaths of but a fraction of the total of almost half a million Syrians slaughtered by the Assad regime. By swallowing Al-Assad’s jihadist bait, and by doing nothing to enforce his own “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons use in 2013 that led to the deaths of over a thousand civilians in the Ghouta, Obama ceded the strategic initiative to the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers.

It was this critical decision by the Obama administration that made Al-Assad think it was perfectly acceptable to continue gassing his own people. After the Ghouta attack, and under Russian protection, the Assad regime was supposed to have dismantled its chemical weapons stockpile in order to avoid an American military response. Clearly, however, this stockpile was never eliminated, as Al-Assad carried on gassing his people, including during the grinding battle for Aleppo last year by dropping chlorine laced barrel bombs on children.

Al-Assad must have gotten comfortable, as after the Khan Sheikhoun attack this week, his regime arrogantly started setting conditions for any investigation into the chemical weapons massacre. Russia even began spouting infantile nonsense about how the Assad regime’s warplanes bombed an alleged rebel chemical weapons facility near the site of the massacre, causing dispersal of toxic agents to kill civilians. This, however, is nonsense, as high explosive munitions would have literally ignited and destroyed the sarin nerve agent that was discovered to have been used on men, women and children.

Why not take out Assad and Daesh?

Trump’s cruise missile strike must have surely jolted Al-Assad out of bed in the early hours of this morning, as he had become accustomed to indifference, weakness and a lack of action. Crucially, however, the US strike focused on the launch site of the chemical attack, and not the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities themselves. Also, the Shayrat airbase is one of many used by the regime to launch chemical munitions against the Syrian people, so the threat they face has not been eliminated.

There is also a risk that Al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, clearly taken aback by Trump’s decision, will now decide to probe US resolve by using conventional munitions to slaughter the Syrian people instead – as if that’s any better. Further action on either side will be dictated in the coming days and over the next few moves and counter-moves, yet one option seems to have not been considered by any of the forces arrayed against Al-Assad apart from by the Syrian opposition itself – why not simply topple the Assad regime whilst simultaneously tackling the Daesh extremists that the West has been so obsessed about for almost three years?

Image of Syrian civilians finding refuge after Assad Regime forces carried out airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on 15 February [Hamza Adnan - Anadolu Agency]

Image of Syrian civilians finding refuge after Assad Regime forces carried out airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on 15 February [Hamza Adnan – Anadolu Agency]

It is not as though this would take significantly more resources. Daesh is a state only in the misappropriated name it has given to itself of the “Islamic State”. It lacks any major surface-to-air capabilities. It has no airpower, armoured or naval forces. It is essentially a motorised infantry force that has managed to embed itself in numerous cities in Iraq and Syria, meaning that any struggle against them will primarily be one of urban warfare, and the primary threat to any large-scale intervention would be the Assad regime itself with all its Russian-made air, land and naval weapons.

There is no point in taking one regime airbase, and then reverting to a more casual and passive stance on Al-Assad while ramping up efforts against Daesh. As Trump pointed out in his speech this morning, however, Al-Assad is responsible for the burgeoning refugee crisis that has caused such uproar in western countries unwilling to share their safety, security and stability with those less fortunate than themselves. Through his use of chemical weapons and mass murder, millions have decided to flee to the west, even causing Trump to play on widespread right-wing anti-refugee sentiments to issue the controversial executive order nicknamed the “Muslim Ban” early in his presidency to prevent the flow of refugees from coming to America.

While Trump had previously characterised the refugees and immigrants as a possible security threat, his speech this morning indicated that they were instead victims who needed protection in order to be able to stay in their own country. Arguably, then, the only way to do that is to act against Al-Assad and Daesh, and to empower the Syrian people to stabilise their own country. Anything less will mean that this war will simply lurch on, slowly grinding what is left of the Syrian people in a bloody example of what human failure to act on genocide looks like.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.