The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, strolls nonchalantly across the marble floor of his palace in Damascus, gently swinging his briefcase: just another day at the office. This short video – titled ‘Morning of Steadfastness’ – was posted on the Syrian presidency’s Twitter feed hours after the US, Britain and France bombed what they said were ‘chemical weapons sites’ in Syria. President Assad’s lack of concern was justified. The Americans fired around 120 missiles – twice the number of their strike a year ago – in a measured attack perhaps designed not to provoke Moscow. This was not about regime change. The dust has settled, no Russians died, and President Assad can now go back to killing the opposition with shells and bullets – just as long as he doesn’t do it with chlorine or Sarin.
These events were set in motion last Monday, when the rolling news channels were filled with horrifying images from the Syrian town of Douma…Bodies piled up grotesquely in a stairwell, no sign of injuries. A father holding two small children, pale as ghosts. A doctor saying the victims died suffocating, foaming at the mouth. One man telling the camera: ‘I could feel my lungs shutting down.’ Babies getting hosed with water in a makeshift hospital. The reports captured the peculiar terror and moral repugnance of chemical weapons – and President Trump was in no doubt who was to blame: ‘Animal Assad’ would have a ‘big price to pay,’ he tweeted: ‘SICK!’
Later that day, his cabinet gathered around him, Trump was in full statesman mode: Commander-in-Chief, wartime President. As ever, it is worth quoting Trump at length when he speaks without a script. ‘We are here to discuss Syria tonight. We’re the greatest fighting force anywhere in the world. These gentlemen and ladies are incredible people. Incredible talent, and we’re making a decision as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus … and it will be met forcefully … but we are developing the greatest force that we’ve ever had.’
Journalists at the cabinet photo-op weren’t interested in Trump free-associating about the US military’s ‘incredible talent’. ‘Did you have an affair with the porn star Stormy Daniels?’ This wasn’t as crass as it might have seemed. According to the Washington Post, Trump had been obsessively flicking between coverage of Syria and another breaking story: FBI raids on the offices of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Cohen had paid off Daniels, to hush up what she claims was an affair with Trump. ‘Why don’t you just fire Mueller?’ another reporter asked. Trump replied: ‘Well, I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation … And many people have said you should fire him.’
This has fuelled speculation that Trump will use the strikes on Syria or their aftermath as the moment to get rid of Robert Mueller, who leads the inquiry into whether Trump’s election campaign conspired with Russia. Americans may be reminded of Bill Clinton’s ‘split screen presidency’ when CNN literally had missiles arcing up through the night sky towards Iraq in one half of the picture while Clinton denied allegations about his sex life in the other. Now, one half of the split screen carries a bewildering succession of tabloid stories from Trump’s reality TV presidency: Stormy Daniels versus Russia; half a dozen other women alongside Mueller, porn and poison gas, the war against the FBI and the war against Syria.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the US had ‘very high confidence’ that the regime had used gas in Douma – rejecting a Russian claim that the British intelligence services staged the whole thing. Syrian doctors at the scene – all opposition supporters, necessarily — blamed a mixture of chlorine gas and Sarin nerve agent. Assad agreed to destroy all stockpiles of Sarin in 2013, when he was threatened with bombing by President Barack Obama. If the regime did use Sarin in the Douma attack, then Assad lied. Or, as a leading Republican hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, put in on a Sunday morning talkshow when Syria’s dictator was last accused of using Sarin a year ago: ‘Here’s what I think Assad’s telling Trump … F you.’
Chlorine has many civilian uses and so was initially left out of the 2013 agreement, a crucial loophole. If this is what’s behind the choking, suffocating deaths in Douma and, again, if the regime is responsible, this would be the biggest chlorine attack by government forces of Syria’s civil war. The question now is the same as that in 2013: why would Assad do the one thing most likely to bring about a US attack on his power? Perhaps this was done by a unit commander or local warlord? But one recent visitor to the government side in Syria told me he was shown a document saying military units could deploy chemical shells only if the order came directly from the President. If that is true, Assad could be vulnerable to an international war crimes prosecution.
Even before the alleged chemical attack, Douma had been under sustained, brutal assault by the regime. The offensive was led by the elite Panther Brigade of the Syrian Army’s special forces, but they were losing a lot of men to the Islamist fighters who control Douma. Those fighters – the Army of Islam – were stubbornly refusing a deal offered by President Assad to be evacuated to the distant northern province of Idlib. The reason: that the Army of Islam are at war not only with the regime but with rival Islamist rebel groups in Idlib. Assad was at an impasse.
This account comes from Professor Juan Cole, a Middle East expert who has produced some of the best analysis of Douma’s rebel groups. ‘My hypothesis is that Assad could not risk losing more troops from the crack Panther Brigades,’ the professor writes. ‘So he decided to send down a barrel bomb of mixed chlorine and Sarin…Assad brazenly committed a war crime, confident that the Russian Federation would protect him from its consequences.’
His explanation makes sense. Assad may have a huge army on paper but there are very few reliable troops he can actually put into the field, perhaps only a few thousand. Douma may not be some inexplicable outrage but just the latest — though extreme — example of business as usual by the regime. Human-rights groups have produced credible reports of dozens of uses of chlorine gas by regime forces over the past few years. None as lethal as Douma, these passed without comment from President Trump’s Twitter feed. Does anyone doubt that a regime busy torturing to death thousands of its citizens in prison is capable of killing civilians indiscriminately with chlorine?
Not Donald Trump. But while Saturday’s missile strikes may make the cable-viewer-in-chief feel a little better after the harrowing images from Douma — cruise missiles as therapy — they are no substitute for an actual strategy. What will President Trump do the day after?
The big thing that has changed since 2013 — the first time the regime is alleged to have used chemical weapons — is that Assad has now all but routed the opposition. Douma, just outside the capital, Damascus, was almost the last place in rebel hands. Russian and Syrian regime flags fly there now, the Army of Islam having surrendered right after the gas attack. The rebels were put on buses to Idlib, along with much of the civilian population. ‘We are being ripped away from our roots,’ said one opposition supporter in Douma, a doctor. He added that as long as Assad was in charge, no opposition supporter would be safe.
So will America now stand in the way of an Assad restoration? Before winning the election, Trump was an isolationist. He campaigned against nation-building, regime change and costly foreign military adventures. In 2013, when Obama seemed about to bomb for the same reason as today — chemical weapons — Trump issued more than a dozen tweets telling him to ‘stay out of Syria’. The capitals are Trump’s: ‘TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!’
As President, Trump initially seemed comfortable with Assad remaining: the regime was fighting Isis, after all. But he never announced that he was reversing the Obama policy. Then came the alleged Sarin attack last year and a US missile strike that no one would have guessed at, given everything Trump had said before. Did that mean regime change was once again US policy? Senator Graham asked that question of the US commander in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel. It was an astonishing exchange. ‘I don’t,’ Votel replied hesitantly, ‘I don’t know that that’s our particular policy at this particular point …’ Graham then replied: ‘Well, if you don’t know, I doubt if anybody knows, because this is your job, to take care of this part of the world.’
Presumably, this is one of the questions that remains to be decided between Trump and his generals. The administration’s internal debate over what to do continued during the week. Nicholas Heras, a Washington analyst with good links to the White House, said one option being discussed was to ‘break Assad’s legs’. No one, it seems, tells the Donald ‘F you.’ Under this plan, Assad was to be hobbled, as Saddam Hussein was hobbled after the 1991 Gulf war.
In the end, the strike on Saturday stopped far short of this. And it was a ‘one shot deal,’ according to the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, a voice of caution in the administration despite being affectionately called ‘Mad-dog’ when he was a Marine Corps general.
More strikes, to create zones where the regime’s writ does not run, might well require a long-term commitment of US troops, even nation building in those areas given over to the opposition. It was only last month that Trump said the US was pulling out of Syria ‘very soon’: ‘Let the other people take care of it now.’ Trump’s base wants him to stick to that. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his show that only ‘Islamist crazies’ would gain from bombing. ‘Overthrowing Assad’s regime would result in chaos, the genocide of Syria’s Christian community and the deaths of American troops.’One report from Washington said Trump saw Carlson’s monologue and started to have doubts about his original enthusiasm for military action. Could it be that a bigger attack was originally planned but then the president began to waver?
A larger strike, over many targets, would have made it difficult for the Russian forces supporting Assad to get out of the way. Russia anyway says that its anti-aircraft defences shot down more than 70 US missiles on Saturday. The prospect of World War Three starting in Syria now seems less far-fetched than it once did. Trump’s attitude to Russia is a puzzle of the past few days. Not so long ago, he was strangely reluctant to criticise Vladimir Putin for anything. Now, he rushes to say that Russia’s leader was personally responsible for Assad’s ‘crimes’. This was evidence that Trump was not a Russian agent, his supporters tweeted, ‘collusion’ with the Kremlin a hoax.
Alternatively, it might be that Trump is an emotional man, driven by instinct as much as logic. This seems to have been what drove the decision to order a punitive strike, the Pentagon and the national security bureaucracy rushing to catch up with the president’s stream of tweets. ‘It was a personal and visceral reaction to the images coming out of Douma,’ said Heras. ‘This has become a grievance against Assad and Putin. He said, “Don’t do it again.” They did it again. It’s personal now.’
But if it’s personal, the reaction may last no longer than a news cycle. Deterring the future use of chemical weapons is no small achievement, but if Trump walks away — a ‘fire and forget’ policy —Assad’s position as Syria’s dictator is now assured. The country would be carved up: the regime in Damascus, the rebels in a northern enclave. The rebels are divided among themselves, fighting each other as much as the regime — there is no government in waiting for the US to support. It is a formula for perpetual war, no end to the fighting. Poor Syria. The only certainty is that many more civilians will be killed.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation.