By KP Fabian*
Within 63 hours of reports about a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Syrian province of Idlib which killed approximately 80 people including children, on 4 April, US ships in the eastern Mediterranean sent 59 Tomahawk missiles aimed at the Shayrat air base from which, the US claims, the aircraft that carried out the attack took off. The Syrian government has claimed that six soldiers and nine civilians, including four children, were killed by the missiles.
The Pentagon, in accordance with the October 2015 ‘de-confliction’ agreement between the two militaries, had given warning to the Russian military about the attack. No Russian was hurt. It is logical to assume that Russia would have shared the information with Syria in which case it is difficult to explain why the Syrians, especially the children, were in the base or near about. The ‘deconfliction’ agreement to prevent collision between the aircraft of the two sides followed Russia’s military intervention, primarily air attacks, beginning on 30 September 2015.
US President Donald Trump’s action was a surprise as he deviated from his ‘America First’ policy. He had made it clear that it was not Washington’s business to get involved in the quarrels elsewhere unless there was a direct threat to the US. The official line is that Trump acted because he was morally outraged when he saw the images of the children in pain. “No child of God,” he said, “should ever suffer such horror.” However, such outrage alone cannot explain the strike, even given Trump’s reputation to act on instinct.
The key advisers were three generals and, of course, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The generals are: Defense Secretary Gen (Retd) James Mattis, affectionately known as the Mad Dog among his friends and admirers; US Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen (Retd) John Kelly; and serving general and National Security Adviser, Lt Gen HR McMaster. The advisers would have known that such a strike would have spoilt the chances of ‘re-set’ of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Trump wanted. Trump admires Putin who helped him to get elected by cracking into the emails of the Democratic Party to the embarrassment of the Democrat’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Perhaps, the advisers wanted to prevent or at least delay a ‘re-set’.
Moscow’s response was sharp. It called Trump’s action “an act of aggression against a sovereign state,” and based on “a far-fetched pretext.” It has suspended the ‘deconfliction’ agreement and strengthened air defence in the areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though Russia’s call for an international investigation to determine who carried out the attack is reasonable, it has poorly argued its case to absolve Damascus. The Russian military’s Facebook page says that an aerial attack by the Syrian Air Force between 11.30 and 12.30 am (local time) on a rebel ammunition depot that contained chemical weapons might have released the toxic stuff. There is a clear discrepancy in the timing as the chemical weapons attack occurred in the morning around 6.30 am.
The US has accused Russia of incompetence or complicity as it maintains that Assad on his own would not have taken the decision without Russia’s consent. That argument is plausible as Assad is virtually on a life-support system provided by Russia and Iran. However, it is difficult to figure out as to why Assad would have chosen to use chemical weapons when he was winning militarily, and especially after the US publicly said that its priority was to go after the Islamic State (IS) and not to topple Assad. Is it possible that Assad got emboldened with such a change in Washington’s position? Only a proper international investigation led by The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can bring out the facts. Truth is the first casualty in war.
As expected, Washington got support from the West, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and a few others. China’s reaction was equivocal and Egypt urged Washington and Moscow to work together for a negotiated end to the crisis in Syria.
The key question is what as to the US will do next. Was it a one-off strike not to be repeated unless there is another nerve-agent attack? Or is there a willingness to get engaged in Syria, militarily too, if necessary, and seek an end to the crisis leading to the emergence of a Syria with its territorial integrity restored? One does not know, but it is difficult to believe that Trump will get engaged in Syria in a serious manner, especially given the limits to what the US can do even if it wanted to. If it supplies sophisticated weapons to rebels supported by it, the IS and other rebels might get hold of them eventually. Long drawn-out negotiations carried out by former US President Barack Obama’s then Secretary of State John Kerry with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov proved to be utterly fruitless. It is good that incumbent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going ahead with his 12 April visit to Moscow. Perhaps, this shows that Trump has not given up on a ‘re-set’. Will the neo-cons let him?
Trump’s strike is unlikely to be a game-changer; Syria’s agony will, alas, continue. The country is de facto divided and any settlement might make the division virtually de jure. Assad is pursuing a mirage if he plans to recover militarily the territory he has lost.
Though Tillerson has hinted that a similar strike against North Korea is not to be ruled out, the situation there is far more complicated given the risk of the fall out of radiation on South Korea, and not to mention, China’s reaction.
* KP Fabian
Former Indian diplomat, & Professor, Indian Society of International Law