Syria: missile attack

Summary: US/French/UK strikes against chemical weapons facilities. Success in narrow terms, limited impact in Syria and the region. The war goes on.

Contrary to the (guarded) forecast in our posting of 13 April the USA, France and UK carried out missile attacks on what they said were chemical weapons facilities in Syria in the early hours of 14 April. The evidence and facts as the Allies saw them are summarised by Reuters at link. The operation was successful in the sense that the facilities were destroyed. There are no reports of serious collateral damage or casualties, and Russian, Iranian and Hizbullah forces were not touched. There is no immediate suggestion either that the Allies will carry out more operations or that there will be retaliation. Reuters reports that oil prices were down 1% in Singapore this morning; “markets in Asia began cautiously after the weekend strikes, with some relief that the move looked unlikely to escalate.”

The main consequence, outside the normal scope of the Arab Digest, is the impact on international law and order. Theresa May’s statement after the attacks was striking for two things it did not mention: Asad’s future and the UN Charter. After saying “This was not about interfering in a civil war. And it was not about regime change” she continued that the attacks were designed to have a greater impact than last year’s US missile attack on the Syrian regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons; “this collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons” (an important consideration in UK thinking is the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal). A published statement of the UK government’s legal position also omits any mention of the UN Charter and relies mainly on the argument that action was justified by the humanitarian suffering caused by the use of chemical weapons, which is open to the counter-argument that chemical weapons are only a very small element in the humanitarian suffering of the people of Syria.

President Trump has not given such a conventional statement to explain his position, but his first tweet is consistent with Theresa May ” …Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!” (which attracted criticism as being the same hubristic phrase used by President George W Bush at what turned out to be rather an early stage in the Iraq war). The US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley claimed that Trump’s position was more nuanced: she had spoken to him: “And he said: ‘If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded.’ ” President Macron claimed that he had convinced Trump to commit US forces to stay in Syria long-term. A New York Magazine article comments that “Trump has a tendency of saying what his interlocutors want to hear, and we’ve only heard the French side of this story… Trump is likely to swat down the notion that anyone told him what to do. He’s also likely to change his entire policy on Syria within the next three days.”

In the debates about the legality of the 2003 Iraq war the critical issue was the interpretation of Security Council resolutions: did they provide a legal basis for the invasion? But in this instance the authority of the Security Council and the UN Charter are mentioned only by the UN secretary general, Russia, China and others opposed to the Allied action. Has the price of strengthening the ban on chemical weapons been to weaken the ban on aggressive war?

The consequences of this action on the region and in Syria itself are limited. Reactions from states and other players in the region were predictable, with condemnation from friends of the Asad regime and support from its enemies, and some disappointment from some (Israel, Saudi Arabia) that the action was limited and did not target Iran or Hizbullah (there is a useful but flawed summary of reactions from a Russian standpoint at link). Asad and his friends have more to celebrate; removal of Asad from power is no longer automatically included in policy statements from the US and its allies.

At the same time that the row blew up about chemical weapons, Syrian government forces were at last successful in taking control of eastern Ghouta, long held by rebel forces, a major military success. But rebel fighters as well as civilians fled, and tens of thousands have reportedly made their way to Idlib in the north-west, with 2 million inhabitants now the largest populated area of Syria under rebel control. Idlib could be the next target of the Syrian government forces, and the French foreign minister has warned of a humanitarian disaster; “Idlib’s fate must be settled by a political process, which includes disarming the militias.” Another rebel held area is Dara’a in the south, where the rebellion began, and other commentators believe that this will be the next priority target.

In short government forces have won another significant victory, but the war is very far from over.

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