Syria war takes new turn after chemical attack, US reaction

The Khan Sheikhoun massacre was the worst chemical weapons attack in Syria since August 2013.

The tragedy continues. A Syrian child holds a placard which reads “inhaling death” during a protest condemning the suspected chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, on April 7th. (AFP)

2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut - In a move of unexpected de­cisiveness, President Don­ald Trump thrust the United States into Syria’s convoluted war with a missile barrage on an airbase from which he says Syrian President Bashar Assad’s warplanes launched a chemical weapons attack that killed scores of men, women and children.

The predawn broadside of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched April 7th from US Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediter­ranean shattered the Shayrat air­base in Homs province. According to the United States, its missiles destroyed 14 Russian-built Su-22 fighter jets and killed at least five people.

The United States said the April 4th chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in neighbouring Idlib province was carried out by two Su-22 squadrons stationed at Shayrat, an attack Trump branded “an affront to humanity”.

Setting aside earlier equivoca­tion on Assad, he declared: “It is in the vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the spread or use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Damascus and its ally Russia denied that Assad’s regime was re­sponsible for the Khan Sheikhoun massacre, in which up to 87 people were reportedly killed by missiles and bombs allegedly containing sarin nerve gas.

It was the worst chemical weap­ons attack in Syria since August 2013, when, according to the United States, 1,400 civilians were killed in a sarin attack in Eastern Ghouta on Damascus’s outskirts.

Assad avoided threatened US retaliation then by agreeing to a Russian-brokered deal to surren­der his stockpile of 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents, the largest in the Middle East.

Trump’s decision to respond unilaterally for Khan Sheikhoun, after years of US inaction, dramati­cally changes the dynamics of a vastly destabilising war now in its seventh year.

Russia and Iran could step up their involvement to ensure As­sad’s survival and pursue their own strategic interests in Syria. But they were apparently sur­prised by the intensity of Trump’s action, given the internal convo­lutions and policy flip-flops of his 10-week-old administration, and perhaps with Assad’s reckless use of poison gas.

Neither is expected to take mili­tary action following the US mis­sile barrage that was clearly in­tended to deliver a message that, after years of Barack Obama’s re­luctance to be drawn into the Syr­ian maelstrom, the United States is ready to take decisive steps to end the carnage fuelling conflict across the region.

Trump called on the global com­munity to join the United States “in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria”.

It was not clear what he has in mind but Republican Senator John McCain declared: “We must finally learn the lessons of history and en­sure that tactical success leads to strategic progress…

“The first measure in such a strategy must be to take Assad’s air force, which is responsible for not just the latest chemical weapons attack but countless atrocities against the Syrian people, completely out of the fight.”

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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