Bloodshed and uncertainty grow amid chemical fog of war

April 7, 2017
A Tomahawk cruise missile fired at Syria from a US warship.

United States warships in the Mediterranean Sea launched a large cruise missile strike against government-held airfields in Syria on April 7. They fired about 60 Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs in central Syria as the US government called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be removed from power.

The attacks were a response to a chemical weapons attack three days earlier in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province that killed more than 70 civilians, including at least 27 children. 

The US and other Western countries blamed Assad for the chemical attack.

“With the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on April 6.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, backed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, immediately stated his government “strongly supports” the US attacks. But Turnbull contradicted Tillerson’s suggestion the US intended to remove Assad.

If, as does seems likely, the Assad regime was responsible for the April 4 chemical attack, it scored a huge own goal. Just days before the attack, the US administration of Donald Trump signalled that removing Assad was no longer a US priority. 

“You pick and choose your battles and … it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” Trump's ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters on March 30.

“Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No … We can't necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did.”

Trump's stance

In fact, since the ISIS terror group invaded northern Iraq in 2014, the Barack Obama administration had already been shifting its focus away from removing Assad. During the US election campaign, Trump said that if elected, he would focus on ISIS and other Islamist terror groups. He also suggested improving relations with Assad’s ally, Russia. 

Trump had previously criticised Obama for threatening direct intervention against Assad after a previous chemical weapons attack in 2013. However, never one to worry about consistency, since April 4 Trump has criticised his predecessor for not following through with the threat.

Furthermore, Turkey, a major sponsor of armed Islamist opposition groups in Syria, has also been shifting its focus away from Assad. In 2011, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, played a significant role in transforming a civil uprising in Syria into a civil war, with ambitions of having influence in a post-Assad Syria. 

However, in 2012, the left-wing feminist and democratic revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) emerged, led by forces ideologically aligned with both the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkish Kurdistan) and the broader left-wing democratic opposition in Turkey. Opposing this development became Turkey’s obsession, making the issue of Assad secondary. 

This revolution has since spread beyond Rojava. Its formula of locally-based grassroots democracy, ethnic inclusion and religious tolerance has created a model for a democratic and inclusive Syria. It is a model far from those offered by the Assad regime or the fractious array of Sunni Islamist opposition groups.

The US continues to diplomatically support the Turkish-backed Sunni Islamist-dominated Syrian National Coalition (SNC). It excludes the political representatives of the Rojava-based revolution from international talks on Syria.

However, the US shift to focussing on ISIS as its primary enemy has meant that since 2014, the US has been coordinating air strikes against ISIS with the military umbrella of the Rojava-based revolution, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This has led to a growing rift between the US and its NATO ally, Turkey. The West recognises Turkey as part of the coalition against ISIS, but in reality Turkey was giving material and logistical support to ISIS between 2014 and 2016 to attack the SDF and its predecessors.

Late last year, Erdogan reached an accommodation with Russia that led to the withdrawal of Turkish-backed forces in Aleppo to join a Turkish invasion in the north directed at the SDF. A direct consequence of this was Assad regime forces retaking eastern Aleppo, which had been held by opposition forces since 2012.

The Assad regime has unsurprisingly denied responsibility for the April 4 attacks. The Russian government immediately backed Assad’s denials, saying the chemical weapons were being stockpiled by opposition forces and were accidentally released when a Syrian government air strike hit the facility.

The opposition forces have used chemical weapons — mainly against the SDF-held Aleppo neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud. But one weakness in Russia’s claims is the speed with which it was made. Along with the detail given, this suggests prior knowledge, or at least suspicions, that chemical weapons were being stored.

Bombing a location where there was any possibility of chemical weapons being released as a result would itself be a war crime.

Furthermore, eyewitness accounts documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are more consistent with the chemical weapons being dropped from the air.

However, in the absence of any independent investigation, it cannot be said with certainty who was responsible. The strongest counter-argument is the lack of motive. On the one hand, unlike in 2013 when the regime’s chemical weapons attack was motivated by military weakness, the regime is now on the front foot against the opposition. On the other hand, alienating the US and Turkey has seriously weakened the regime.

Regardless of whether the regime was responsible for the April 4 attack, Trump’s missile strike will only worsen the violence. 

Air strikes are a blunt instrument. This was graphically demonstrated on March 17 when a US air strike on the Jadidah neighbourhood of the ISIS-held Iraqi city of Mosul killed at least 278 civilians.

In Syria, Russian and Syrian regime air strikes have been responsible for most civilian casualties among the half million killed since the civil war began. However, has reported that since Trump took office, US air strikes in Iraq and Syria have claimed more civilian lives than Russia’s.

One reason for this has been the assault on Mosul. In Iraq, the US allies on the ground lack a local popular base and have therefore taken no measures to minimise civilian casualties.

In Syria, air strikes have had a lower death toll when coordinated with the SDF. However, despite the SDF’s intentions, civilians have been killed. In 2014, coordination between the US-led air coalition groups that later helped form the SDF — the Kurdish-based People's and Women’s Defence Units (YPG/J) — began during the ISIS siege of Kobane.

The YPG/J entered into the arrangement reluctantly. At the time, they called for an end to the blockade of Rojava by Turkey and the US-backed Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, and an end to the criminalisation of their Turkish Kurdistan-based ally the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

These measures would have allowed the YPG/J to access heavy weapons to counter the Turkish-supplied heavy weapons of ISIS. The YPG/J also demanded the West stop arming Turkey, at least until it stopped supplying arms to ISIS. 

The US refused these demands, but offered to coordinate its air strikes against ISIS, which had begun a month earlier.

Since then, military coordination between the SDF and the US-led air coalition has continued against the backdrop of a complex diplomatic game. The bottom line of this game was the US threat that if the SDF did not want to be its battlefield ally against ISIS, it would give that role to Turkey and its Syrian proxies instead.

Air strikes

Since Trump took office, has reported a dramatic rise in casualties from US air strikes in Syria. Trump is motivated by a desire to show his right-wing domestic support base that he is tougher on ISIS than Obama. His administration has begun carrying out more air strikes that have not been coordinated with the SDF.

Since August last year, the US has been supporting the Turkish occupation of an enclave in Syria around the towns of Jarabalus and al-Bab, while continuing coordinating air strikes with the SDF — despite it being the target of Turkey’s occupation.

The US has positioned its own forces between the two and also coordinated with Russia to do the same, in an effort to keep the pretence of a united front against ISIS. The April 4 chemical attacks and April 7 US missile strike are likely to upset these delicate arrangements.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the US is backing forces opposed to the SDF’s main allies there, left-wing militias based in the Yazidi population of Shengal (Sinjar). In Turkey, the US has supported Erdogan’s war against the PKK and soft-peddled criticism of his increasingly violent crackdown on the democratic opposition.

That Russia is responsible for much of the violence in Syria is not a credible pretext for the West escalating the violence.

Adding the Assad regime to the military targets of Western intervention in the region will only increase the violence. What is needed is the opposite: withdrawal of Western forces from the region, the end to direct and indirect support to terrorist groups in the opposition, an end to military ties with Turkey and an end to the blockade of Rojava and the criminalisation of the PKK.

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