Following the Douma sarin attack, eyes have once again focused on the prospect of military action against the Assad regime. President Trump expressed revulsion at the attack and continues to threaten military action through his Twitter account.
As of April 12th, France, Britain and possibly Saudi Arabia are coordinating their response with the United States. For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron has declared the use of chemical weapons a red line and stated that a joint military response is not out of the question. Britain has put its airbase on Cyprus on alert while the U.S has continued to fly reconnaissance flights over the Eastern Mediterranean.
Assets like the French Aircraft Carrier Charles De Gaulle are rumored to be heading towards the middle east, while an American strike group led by the USS Harry S. Truman and accompanied by the German Frigate Hessen are confirmed to be on their way towards the eastern Mediterranean. The British too, have placed a submarine in striking position off the Syrian coast.
It is obvious at this point that Assad was not deterred by the American strike last April. He has continued to use chemical weapons, not just sarin, but weaponized chlorine gas as well.
To be successful politically, a military strike would have to impose unacceptable costs on Assad Regime. The action would have to offset the advantages he gained by using chemical weapons and show him that their continued use will hinder, rather than help him.
The military aspect of the response has to be extensive. Western powers cannot simply launch a symbolic attack like last time. The assault will have to be powerful enough to disrupt Syrian army operations in the long term and significantly cripple their air force beyond the point where they can simply replace aircraft with old stock sold to them by the Russians.
This means targeting not only aircraft, but infrastructure as well. Aircraft repair facilities, fuel depots, runways and the anti-aircraft facilities that protect them will need to be destroyed along with any known chemical research and weapons manufacturing facilities. Bombing command posts and striking government buildings, like the Ministry of Defense in Damascus or even Assad’s Palace should also be considered. Assad cannot be left with the ability to launch another attack, or for the Russian Air Force to pick up the slack.
Aside from the military aspect, economic sanctions will also play a key role in the response. Assad is clearly willing to take punishment as long the Russians and Iranians are there to give him more money, men, and material. The political challenge will be to disrupt those flows, by targeting the entities that enable Assad’s military to function. This would include Russians state-owned arms companies like Rosoboronexport and any other organizations that aid the flow of weapons to Assad.
Unfortunately, I believe we are beyond the diplomatic stage with Assad and the Russians. Not only did Assad rebuild his chemical weapons capacity after he officially gave up his weapons, but the Russian government has continued to use diplomacy as a tactic to delay and distract, rather than hold Assad to account. In both Ukraine and Syria Putin has used fake ceasefires to draw attention away from his aggression. He has shot down airliners, conducted assassinations and then lied to the world with a straight face .
Russia has not acted in good faith and cannot be trusted to uphold any agreement concerning Syria.
Russia’s April 10th proposal to send OPCW investigators to Douma was another such ploy. Russia knows such an investigation would have had no practical consequences. As Eliot Higgins noted, the move would have disrupted the political momentum that has built towards a military strike, and in the end, Putin and Assad could simply dismiss the report as propaganda like the last report on a regime chemical attack the OCPW completed.
Russia also knows that once a U.N report is filed there is no enforcement mechanism. It would not even grant the United States or other U.N member states the authority to punish Assad for his crimes. Luckily, the UNSC saw through the rouse and it was shot down (pun not intended).
As I said before, It is clear that Assad will not give up his chemical weapons and will continue to use them. This use is eroding international norms and is causing untold suffering in Syria. I will not re-post the pictures of the dead women and infants here but suffice to say that this horror is not acceptable. The U.S cannot sit by while a tin-pot dictator backed by our enemies gasses civilians on Europe’s doorstep.