On April 4th, 2017 the Assad regime conducted an assault on the civilians of Khan Shaykhun not far from the frontline in Idlib province near Hama.
As of writing around 100 civilians are dead and 400 injured. I am certain Assad employed nerve agent to commit the massacre. In the video, victims can be seen gasping for breath, twitching and one man is clearly frothing at the mouth; all telltale signs of exposure to sarin nerve gas.
Because of the graphic nature of the video, it was removed from YouTube shortly after it was posted. However, some things need to be seen and sometimes those things are hard to see. So I have included a link to archive.org along with someone’s random re-upload in case that gets taken down.
The typical hand-wringing has already started in the West. France has called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council which predictably put an appalled group of western powers up against a denialist Russia.
I won’t dance around it; Assad has been committing these crimes for over four years now. Obama’s plan to disarm Assad has failed, either because he rebuilt his chemical stockpile and capability or kept some of his manufacturing facilities hidden and we are now entering an era where such attacks are becoming commonplace.
The regime and it’s Russian allies already tried to pin the blame on the rebels, spinning an outlandish tale that the regime hit a warehouse full of rebel chemical weapons, even though they lack the necessary infrastructure, manufacturing, and technical capabilities to produce them in the necessary quantities. In any case, the idea that an air strike would have mixed up enough precursor to create that much sarin has been debunked.
While the Russians shamelessly lie to protect Assad, the Trump administration’s initial response was a soulless and politically retarded attempt to shift blame to Obama’s 2012 decision not to bomb Assad. This, after just days before his administration, expressed ambivalence as to what Assad’s fate should be. Secretary Tillerson even Implied in his statement that Russians and the Iranians (the prime enablers of Assad’s butchery) should be responsible for restraining him.
However, on day two, Trump seemed to do a complete about-face. Trump claimed that after seeing what Assad had done he had changed his view on the situation in Syria. He accused Assad of crossing “many lines” and proclaimed that he (Trump) is now responsible for the situation in Syria; not Obama.
What impact Bannon’s departure from National Security Council earlier in the day had on his shift in view has yet to be seen, but what is clear is that Trump is now, quite literally, on the warpath with Assad.
Let’s be clear: the only way Assad will give up these weapons is through force. Peaceful methods of inducing compliance with international law have failed and will continue to fail so long as Russia can cover for the regime in the international arena, especially the UNSC. Ambassador Haley has already declared that if these institutions fail (again) to take action the U.S will do so unilaterally.
What that action might look like is still very much up in the air. Outside the UN other options are blocked by the presence of Russian troops on the ground and Russian and Iranian supplies of men, material, and money which has kept the regime afloat and would render additional sanctions ineffective.
If Trump is to make good on his threat he has two broad options (not necessarily mutually exclusive):
- A series of limited military strikes aimed at punishing Assad and diminishing his capability to conduct attacks on civilians. These could range anywhere from limited strikes on airfields to a full force assault on the regime’s military, economic and political infrastructure.
- Supplying the Idlib rebels with more advanced weapons, capable of downing his warplanes and stopping the advance of his ground forces and allied militias. These could range from MANPADS and anti-tank missiles to heavy weapons out of our or our allies’ old stocks.
The downsides of these options are fairly straightforward: If Trump attacks Assad he risks killing Russian troops fighting alongside him. If he begins sending weapons without striking Assad he risks looking politically weak as he basically picks up where Obama left off. As of now, Trump appears to be leaning toward option number one.
Whatever he decides to do Trump must do something. After he criticized Obama’s inaction and publicly assumed responsibility for Syria he has set the stage for a show that he must either put on or suffer another humiliation.
But, unlike the healthcare debacle, this policy decision is completely within his control. With Bannon gone his NSC is now dominated by Army Generals and traditional Republicans who are no fans of Assad. Congress has all but given up on trying to restrain the president’s war-making powers and has left tens of billions of dollars in the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund. If the President wishes to strike Assad the path is clear; all he has to do is decide.