Trump on Syria Chem Attack: Putin responsible for supporting “Animal Assad”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

On Sunday, Trump responded to the use by the Syrian regime of a chlorine-filled barrel bomb in the rebel enclave of Douma, a district of East Ghouta.

Since Trump had launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on the Shuayrat Air Base last year this time after regime use of poison gas at Khan Sheykhoun, it is not surprising that Trump is threatening Syria with paying a “big price” for the use of gas.

It is a little surprising that for the first time, Trump was openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him and Iran “responsible” for supporting “Animal Assad.”

Trump has in the past suggested that Syria needed a strongman like Assad, and recently announced that he would pull US troops out of Syria (press reports say he told insiders that the US would be out by October).

It appears that the Israeli air force took advantage of the Douma crisis to bomb a Syrian base between Homs and Palmyra. Typically such Israeli strikes seek to take out arsenals intended for transport to southern Lebanon for Hizbullah.

Trump also lambasted former President Barack Obama for declining, in 2013, to follow through on bombing Syria after having drawn a red line in a speech against use of chemical weapons.

Douma has been militarily dominated for some years by the Saudi-backed Army of Islam militia, a hard line Salafi jihadi organization that has issued threats against the country’s Alawite Shiite minority and foresworn any notion of future Syrian democracy.

The Syrian Arab Army and Russian Aerospace Forces have conducted a successful military campaign to expel other rebels in other parts of East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus from which the capital has taken mortar fire and bombings, some of them directed by Saudi Arabia. The recent campaign by the al-Assad government has been conducted as a series of war crimes with no consideration for endangering innocent non-combatant lives. Some 1600 people have been killed in the course of the operation.

The campaign in the remaining enclave of Douma, however, has run into obstacles. The Army of Islam is not as willing to stand down and agree to be transfered elsewhere as the other East Ghouta militias were. In part this reluctance stems from their enmity with the Committee for Levantine Liberation (HTS), which dominates the northern province of Idlib, to which the other rebel groups were sent.

The ground assault has been led by the Panther Brigades special operations forces, who have in recent days been said to take high casualties. Since these are the regime’s crack troops, it cannot afford this attrition, which likely led to the decision to use chem. It is possible that the chemical attack was intended to hit Army of Islam fighters and to send a signal with a few deaths that their intransigence would not be permitted. Instead, the chlorine killed dozens of civilians, including children. It is also possible that the massacre of civilians was intentional, and intended to terrorize locals into withdrawing their support from the guerrillas.

Trump’s response to Khan Sheykhoun in 2017 was a one-off with no real military or political impact. I strongly suspect that any response he makes now will be similar, a fireworks show for his domestic constituency without much downstream consequence in Syria itself.

Obama decided not to bomb Syria in September of 2013 because the British parliament voted against a joint operation and because the Republicans in Congress made it clear that they would not support an Obama strike on Syria. Russia offered to sequester Syrian sarin gas stockpiles, and Obama took them up on the offer. It appears that some 90 percent of the sarin stockpiles were in fact destroyed or removed. Saturday’s attack used chlorine, a common industrial chemical.

Since Trump’s own strike on the Shuayrat base last year did not forestall the Douma gassing, it is difficult to understand why Trump thinks a strike in 2013 by Mr. Obama would have done so.

The big question is whether the mercurial and erratic Trump will now rethink his decision to get out of Syria entirely by next fall. The US special operations troops that would be pulled out are in the Syrian far east, embedded among Kurds, and have nothing to do with the Damascus area.


Bonus video:

Voa: Trump Accuses Putin, Russia, Iran of Enabling Atrocities in Syria

Posted in Featured,Syria | 16 Responses | Print |

16 Responses

  1. I am tired of my banging my head against the wall try to show evidence of Assad’s warcrimes to people, they will never believe anything, they will use the logic argument to say Assad didn’t do xyz, but when you show them the logical basis for him using such tactics, they will ignore it and conveniently assert their own claim over anyone else’s. Ironically, these people are fervently anti-Zionist in many cases, yet the arguments they make are so similar. Despite what countless human rights groups, the UN and the OPCW have reported, they will choose not to believe anything. I am against US military intervention because I think personally, the US does not care about civilians, the carnage in Yemen and the warcrimes committed by Israel which it fully supports does not bother the ruling class one bit, barring maybe a few, but in the case of Israel, practically no one. I do think any attempt to find a sense of justice needs to involve a reformation of the institutions we have, whether it is the ICC and the UNSC, so that they are not politicized and able to act in situations like these, where the aim is solely to protect civilians, not other agendas. These organisations need to be able to act regardless of who the perpetrators are. The ICC needs to be able to punish all leaders who commit warcrimes, be they Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian, Israeli, Saudi, Turkish, etc.

    • I have seen in the past, not just with Syria, where some leftists are so against US policy, especially interventions, that they end up defending ruthless dictators. Many ideologues want to see the world in only black and white and end up with what seems to me to be curious and dubious positions. Unfortunately the world is a messy place and right and wrong are rarely clearly delineated.. I always am reminded of what the journalist/author Robert Fisk once wrote about the Middle East: there is no right and wrong, only different degrees of wrong (I may have the quote a little off, but you get the idea). Or, to put it another way, there are no clean hands in the region. Assad has shown clearly in the past that he will stoop to any depths to hold on to power. At the very beginning he may have been able to work out a peaceful solution that left him in in charge but sharing power, but he chose to meet peaceful demonstrations with gunfire and bloodshed and things have degenerated from there.

      • Being not from the US myself but currently living here, I find people educating me about the “third world” and how the evil West is to blame for everything. It’s ironic, because I’m from what you would call a developing nation that was colonized by Germany and then Britain. The West has a lot to answer for no doubt, but this idea that the world is black and white and that other leaders are innocent and just victims of imperialist aggression is just factually incorrect. I have met Iraqis who themselves told me that the phase from 1979-2003 was a nightmare for them, and that even though the country is going through a difficult period, the situation will eventually stabilize but Saddam was never the answer to the problems Iraq is facing, he was in fact one of the biggest causes of those problems. I do not believe the West went into Iraq to “liberate Iraqis”, they obviously had their own agendas, whether it was oil or US/Israeli geostrategic gains, and let’s not forget the US propped up Saddam for 8 years in the war against Iran, but that doesn’t mean Saddam wasn’t an absolute genocidal maniac. Iraqis themselves will tell you this, but the left in the West is too fixated with the idea that anyone the West is against is automatically good and a champion of resistance, etc. If only the world were so easy.

  2. Thank you so very much for your cogent presentation of the situation.

    You write, “Since Trump’s own strike on the Shuayrat base last year did not forestall the Douma gassing, it is difficult to understand why Trump thinks a strike in 2013 by Mr. Obama would have done so.”

    It is very difficult to understand anything our President Donald J. Trump thinks, isn’t it ?

  3. As I trust Professor Cole’s expertise in Middle Eastern affairs and his fairness, I do not wish to contradict his assessment that it was definitely the Syrian regime that used chemical weapons in Douma. The reasons that he provides are certainly plausible. However, as the latest use of chemical weapons has provided another excuse for the hawks to encourage President Trump to again carry out a military attack against Syria, and as Russia has warned against it, this latest episode may lead to a bigger confrontation. Israel has already used the opportunity to launch an attack on Syria as she had repeatedly done in the past, usually following the defeat of the terrorists.

    I would like to post the following link just to provide an alternative version. Only yesterday, the former British Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford in an interview with Sky News warned against jumping to a conclusion before all the facts are known, and he pointed the finger at the Army of Islam for the atrocity. The report is published by the RT, which may be as reliable or unreliable as the VOA, but the points that the author makes are worthy of consideration:
    link to

    • It is increasingly looking as though sarin was involved (chlorine would probably have dispersed before killing so many). Only the regime has sarin.

      • Latest reports from a Syrian doctor’s association that 150 are confirmed dead in Douma from poison gas.

        It is suspected a “cocktail” of chlorine and sarin was used.

        The poison gas was delivered by helicopter via “barrel bombs” and one was dropped on the roof of Douma’s hospital, killing six, and another was dropped on an apartment building, killing a number of women and children.

        The use of helicopters would clearly implicate the Assad regime in the poison gas use.

    • “……[o]nly yesterday, the former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford in an interview……..warned against jumping to a conclusion before all the facts are known, and he pointed the finger at the Army of Islam for the atrocity…………..”

      Peter Ford is affiliated with a pro-Assad lobby group in the U.K., so his credibility is questionable:

      link to

    • Its elementary dear Farhang, Trump wants to milk the Saudis for billions and leave Syria, Evil Assad wants him to stick around and rebuild Syria don’t you see.

  4. Syria is another Yugoslavia in waiting for the powers that be, they want to dismember and permanently reduce it as they did the latter.

    • Yugoslavia was an artificial country held together by Tito. Once he died, the country’s instability was pretty much assured. Syria is less riven by factions/ethnicities than Yugoslavia was, but under the Asads it has been run by the Alawites who are a minority in the country. The mismanagement by the Assads, especially during the Arab Spring, is responsible for their troubles, not “outside agitators.”

  5. I must confess to being of two minds. I detest Assad and his band of Ba’athists thugs. Then again, I detest our fake President and everything he stands for. At this point, Trump’s done a wonderful job alienating allies to such an extent that I can’t imagine how he’d be able to mobilize a coalition of the willing to take serious action against Damascus. Even then, what’s the end game? After Iraq, we ought to take a deep breath and ask ourselves what we want to accomplish. Lots of bad options on the table. It’s a mess.

    Only safe prediction: More Syrian civilians are going to get butchered in the worst way while Assad, Lavrov and assorted Iranian hacks will swear that everything’s just hunky-dory

  6. This is why we have international law: to try world leaders under a universal framework for crimes against humanity. A lot of international law was established and codified after atrocities during World War II. If the lessons of World War II mean anything to us at all, we need to strengthen and not abrogate international and human rights laws.

    Unilateral strikes against other countries that are not sanctioned by the UN Security Council are against international law.

  7. Its hard for me to see the context of the “line in the sand” outrage at the at the use of chemical weapons. The estimated deaths in the Syrian war are about 400,000, well over 99% of which were caused by “conventional” weapons.

    The establishment message seems to be “we feel your pain if caused by chemical weapons”. If not, “war is hell”.

    Trump, and most of us, had no attacks of conscience when we dropped the 21,000 pound MOAB bomb on the Taliban last April. The militarily and Trump were proud of the operation. I suppose the common understanding is that incineration by MOAB is more humane than strangling from a gas attack.

    • I think the dread of chemical weapons came from World War 1 and the years afterward. They were seen as too destabilizing to the normal business of Great Powers pushing around lesser powers while not annihilating each other. Watch the movie “The Shape of Things To Come” to see an example of what 1930s Britons feared for the next war – which did not happen. When Germans began conventionally bombing London, the British were stuck with plans based on the assumption of massive civilian casualties from chemical weapons, not fires all over the place. Of course, Hitler himself was deathly afraid of chemical weapons due to his own experience. And yes, the Allies had plans to use those on Germany if the war went one more year.

      In other words, chemical weapons represent a threshold that it’s too easy to cross, thus raising the spectre of eternal escalation. Nuclear weapons create the same dread, but form a very high threshold that has somehow held up for 73 years.

      They want their wars nice and middle-sized and unending. Biochemical weapons throw that out the window.

  8. One of the other reasons obama didn’t bomb in 2013 is as he said himself in a 2016 interview in The Atlantic, that his intelligence chief came to him and said they weren’t sure Assad was responsible.

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