Can the U.S. Respond to the Syria Chemical Weapons Attack without Risking Escalation?

What do we know about the 7 April chemical weapons attack?

On the evening of 7 April 2018, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was subjected to an apparent chemical weapons attack. According to local first responders, the attack killed more than 42 residents sheltering in their homes and affected more than 500. The attack came as Syrian government forces subjected the city to a surge in conventional bombing after negotiations stalled over the city’s surrender.

So far, no international party has said definitively or presented conclusive evidence that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons use. There is no independent outside access to Douma, which has been encircled by government forces, and many medical workers and activists have already left the city in several rounds of government-orchestrated displacement to rebel-held north Syria. Activists inside Douma have provided photo and video documentation they claim is of the attack. Further information has come from the U.S.-based Syrian American Medical Society, which supports a network of doctors in Douma and elsewhere in Syria, and Syria Civil Defence, a first responder organisation active inside Douma that receives backing from Western governments. The chemical used in the attack has not been definitively identified, but the U.S. State Department has said victims’ symptoms are consistent with an asphyxiation agent and a nerve agent of some type.

While the lack of access makes it difficult to immediately verify, chemical weapons use would be consistent with past behaviour by the Syrian government. The government has repeatedly employed chlorine and, more infrequently, sarin gas against areas under rebel control, as documented by nonpartisan international bodies such as the United Nations-established Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Chemical attacks fit within a broader strategy the government has used of targeting civilians and fighters alike in rebel-held areas. Through brutal means, this strategy renders these areas highly dangerous and ultimately unlivable, permitting no viable alternative to government control.

What were the immediate results on the ground?

This apparent attack came after negotiations between the Syrian government’s ally Russia and local rebel faction Jaish al-Islam reached an impasse. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Jaish al-Islam consented to a deal whereby they would exit Douma and be bussed to opposition-held, Turkish-guaranteed areas in Syria’s north. Russia has said that as many as 8,000 fighters and 40,000 civilians may be evacuated. The group also agreed to release hundreds of civilian captives, many of them from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, who had been held prisoner for years. Their safe release was key for the Syrian government, which told its loyalist constituents that “the state promised, and it delivered on that promise”.

Douma was all that remained of the opposition-held enclave in East Ghouta, a long-time rebel stronghold on the doorstep of Syria’s capital. After a years-long siege, the government and its allies launched a decisive assault on East Ghouta in February. The government’s forces overran much of the area and divided what was left into three isolated pockets. The government and Russia quickly arranged to empty two of those areas of rebels and opposition-linked civilians, expelling them to northern Syria and returning the areas to government control. Douma proved more difficult, for reasons that included the challenge of identifying a rebel area that could receive Jaish al-Islam and, during negotiations, the group’s own intransigence and internal divisions.

What has been the international reaction so far?

Syria’s T-4 airbase was hit by an apparent Israeli airstrike on the morning of 9 April, although it remains unclear whether the strike was related to the Douma chemical attack. The Russian Ministry of Defence took the unusual step of asserting that the strikes were carried out by two Israeli Air Force F-15 jets that fired eight missiles from Lebanese airspace, and that Syrian air defences intercepted five of the eight missiles. Syrian state media said there were “dead and wounded” in the strike, but did not provide further detail. Iran’s Tasnim News Agency has said seven Iranian personnel were killed. Those killed reportedly included a member of a division that operates drones. U.S. officials told NBC News Monday that Israel notified Washington before carrying out the attack. Israel has declined to comment. Israel also struck the T-4 base in February, after an Iranian drone it said was launched from the base entered Israeli airspace.

U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that his administration would decide its response in the next 24 to 48 hours. “This is about humanity, it can’t be allowed to happen”, he told reporters. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed in a call the day before to exchange information on the attacks and “coordinate a strong, joint response”. According to the White House’s readout, they “strongly condemned the horrific chemical weapons attacks in Syria and agreed that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses”.

Trump’s initial response on Twitter struck an even more bellicose tone than his subsequent statements, as he blamed Russia and Iran – namechecking “President Putin” specifically – for backing “Animal Assad”, adding there would be a “big price … to pay”. The Syrian government has called the accusations “a boring record, only convincing to a few states that trade in the blood of civilians and support terrorism in Syria”.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called on the council to adopt a draft resolution that would condemn the continuing use of chemical weapons in Syria and establish a new body empowered to assign blame in chemical attacks. Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia called instead for international inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to visit the site. (The OPCW is not empowered to attribute responsibility for attacks.) He also objected to America’s confrontational tone, after Haley said the hands of “the Russian regime” are “covered in the blood of Syrian children”. He reiterated Russian warnings of the “dire consequences” of military intervention under false pretences. Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari said the scenes from the alleged chemical attack were theatrics meant to justify military aggression against Syria. A Security Council vote on two competing drafts – one backed by the U.S., the other by Russia – is expected today. Independently, the OPCW said it would deploy a team “shortly” to the site of the attack.

Is more international action on the way?

Despite the OPCW’s announcement, additional strikes by the U.S. and its Western allies nonetheless seem likely. Much will depend on Tuesday’s Security Council session, but Monday’s session augured poorly for a compromise. If, as expected, Russia and the P3 – the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France – cannot agree on a mechanism those latter three consider credible, they may well carry out a military response outside the scope of the Security Council.

Polarisation and paralysis inside the Security Council are a big part of the problem. Russia has repeatedly used its veto power in the Security Council to block attempts to penalise the Syrian government for its chemical attacks, including in instances where the Joint Investigation Mechanism (the only UN-authorised body empowered to identify culpability in these attacks) has identified the government as the culprit. Indeed, after the Joint Investigation Mechanism found the government responsible for the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack, Russia effectively disbanded the body by vetoing the renewal of its mandate in November 2017. Russia’s position has left the U.S. and other countries with no UN-sanctioned means to meaningfully address chemical weapons use.

It was another chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta, in 2013, that nearly triggered a U.S.-led intervention in Syria. The attack killed more than 1,000 people. The Obama administration threatened military action but ultimately opted for a chemical weapons disarmament and inspection regime instead of military action.

The Trump administration has defined itself in opposition to its predecessor. Last year, it signalled that it was willing to respond to chemical attacks without a UN Security Council mandate. After the Syrian government bombed the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas on 4 April last year, the U.S. launched a retaliatory missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase. The Trump administration subsequently warned of a “heavy price” if the Syrian government again “conduct[ed] a mass murder attack using chemical weapons”. France’s Macron has repeatedly emphasised his own red line, threatening to strike if proscribed chemical weapons are used against civilians in Syria. However, in practice and to date, these red lines have not seemed to apply to attacks using chlorine gas. Chlorine gas is also internationally proscribed but less effective than sarin as a weapon, except in confined spaces. Thus far, the Syrian government’s apparent continued employment of this weapon has not prompted reprisal.

It may have been chlorine that was employed in Douma, either alone or in tandem with a nerve agent. Whatever the gas used, given the scale of the apparent attack and the U.S. and Western reactions, there are strong reasons to believe that this time they will respond militarily.

What can a strike by the U.S. and its allies possibly achieve, and what are the risks?

Any military action in Syria inevitably will present significant risks of unintended escalation, especially given deepened involvement by several foreign actors. Those could potentially be mitigated through effective messaging and the careful definition of narrow deterrent purposes.

That will be a difficult balance to strike. When the U.S. bombed Shayrat in April 2017, it clearly communicated the proportional, deterrent nature of the strike, making clear that the purpose was not to topple the Syrian government but to punish and deter chemical weapons use. It also warned Moscow of the strike in advance, allowing Russia to ensure the safety of its personnel. The very limited strikes, advance warning and communication of U.S. aims may have helped prevent retaliation by Russia and avoid a broader, unchecked military escalation. Although the Shayrat strike arguably may have deterred the use of sarin, at least for some time, it clearly did not discourage the regime from using chlorine gas.

What kind of military strike could effectively deter the use of all chemical weapons, including chlorine, is uncertain. It almost certainly would have to be more robust than the action taken in 2017, while also being accompanied by clear communications and concrete demands that Damascus and its allies could understand and reasonably implement. This presents a considerable challenge. Not only would it be difficult to organise and message a multilateral intervention in a complex political and military space, but it is uncertain exactly how much damage a strike would have to inflict to achieve the desired goal and effectively deter the Syrian government from further chemical weapons use, while avoiding a dangerous Russian response or other form of escalation. In essence, a narrow, limited attack is unlikely to deter repeated chemical weapons use, while a broader one could have unintended and uncontrollable consequences.

In particular, any attack risks hitting Russian and Iranian personnel commingled with their Syrian partners, triggering a broader confrontation. Even a strike that avoided doing so could be misread by Moscow or Tehran as designed to achieve more substantial goals. In the context of heightened tensions between Russia and the West, as well as the Trump administration’s open hostility to Iran and stated desire to curb its influence in Syria, Russia or Iran could feel the need to retaliate in some fashion. Uncertainty surrounding Washington’s current objectives in Syria, particularly given the recent turnover at the top of the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council and President Trump’s reported insistence on a U.S. withdrawal from Syria – apparently contradicting the Syria strategy announced this January that the president himself approved – make the probability of misinterpretation all the greater. The result could be an escalation that is difficult to control and that could spill beyond Syria’s borders.

Moreover, the U.S. and its allies are unlikely to be the only or even main targets of retaliation by the Syrian government and its backers. Military action could provoke intensified bombing by the Syrian government and Russia against opposition-held areas. It could also jeopardise local ceasefire arrangements, including the tenuous “de-escalation” in southwestern Syria jointly negotiated by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan. The end result could be an aggravation of civilian suffering.

Last, no form of military action is likely to change the situation in Douma, where the evacuation under duress of rebels and civilians is already in progress. For the city’s residents, any international response will have come too late.