ROSS BURNS. After Khan Sheikhun

The 4 April attack on Khan Sheikhun using CW (chemical warfare) weapons was almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This is the only explanation which ticks off all the boxes—means, motive and opportunity. The hastily assembled US retaliatory attack on the Syrian air base at Shayrat near Homs, however, might not have been particularly effective in addressing the problem of residual nerve agents in the hands of the Syrian regime.  

This is not to argue that the American attack on the Syrian air base at Shayrat was reckless or high risk. It could have been a lot more effective, though, if it had been carefully planned and executed. Damage to the base was not extensive and the Assad regime has endured worse humiliations. The fact that Trump may have been partly motivated by wanting to be seen as decisive may have worked against the use of military power for defined ends.

Although chlorine had been used in Syria on several occasions since 2013 by all sides, resorting again to binary CW agents such as sarin represents an open defiance of the international norms Damascus had agreed to be bound to under an inspection and disposal program organized by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and underwritten by Russia. For the outside world now to turn a blind eye to use of the same weapons would effectively amount to standing with arms folded while the level of savagery in this conflict rose to new heights.

Though only an attack mounted by the Syrian armed forces would meet all the criteria to explain the use of CW, an independent readout on the product used should be a key element in underlining the seriousness of the red line now crossed. Everything relayed via Syrian opposition forces, particularly via sources from the al-Qaeda end of the spectrum or the Turkish authorities, should be counter-checked before being uncritically recycled ad infinitum.

Other doubts have been raised whether the Syrian regime could have been so clearly bent on self-destruction soon after its apparent move to offensive mode with the retaking of Aleppo on 6 December 2016. This, however, is a total misreading of what is happening on the ground. The pattern of the Syrian conflict has one common theme—the regime has huge difficulties in holding terrain due to the poor quality of its conscript-based armed forces and the capacity of its opponents to crop up almost at will, crossing the vast central steppe and suddenly appearing in the inhabited areas around the western rim and the Euphrates river valley. In particular, the media picture since Aleppo fell has overlooked numerous firefights along the southern rim of Idlib province, where Islamist fighters have been dumped following ‘ceasefire’ deals concluded in and around Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. These fiercely committed forces (mainly al-Qaeda offshoots) are easily re-supplied across the Turkish border and have begun pressing south towards the next provincial capital, Hama.

Hama is one of a handful of Syrian cities which has remained relatively quarantined during the course of the conflict. It is no coincidence that it was the city which 35 years ago served as the final battleground in the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion against the government. The punishment meted out in the regime’s bombardment of the city was so brutal and decisive that Hama has remained in clamp-down ever since. If it can now be drawn directly into the struggle, the regime will suffer a moral loss which would more than outweigh the victory it has claimed in Aleppo.

The skirmishes in the Orontes Valley rim area between Hama and Idlib over the last month thus poses a new challenge to the government. This means that rather than Bashar being on a high—and so concerned not to offend the international community just as he hoped to be acknowledged as winner—the president’s thinking was possibly the opposite; more like panic. He therefore might choose to echo his father’s brutal messaging with the flattening of central Hama in 1982. Moreover, being tough in the face of a US president who seemed to have no stabilising principles governing his behaviour (and an isolationist at heart) might seem like an opportunity not to be lost.

The probability is that Assad saw the attack as a means of discouraging any drive by Islamist forces towards Hama. The Russians’ counter-claim—attempting to pin the incident on the town’s rebels, said to have concocted sarin in an empty shed—simply signals that there is no credible alternative explanation and that the Russians might have been caught flat-footed. Assad may not have told the Russians he was scrapping the 2013 agreement they had underwritten through the OPCW, though it could not have escaped the Russians’ notice given their shared use of the base at Shayrat.

Trump has promised a strategy but does he have one? The OPCW admits that 5% of the identified CW has still not been accounted for. Trump’s improvised rhetoric tried to give the impression the Shayrat raid addressed the CW problem. The fact is that it was Obama’s measured working through options (now endlessly recycled to provide a factoid said to display irresolution) which saw the removal of 95% of the nerve agents held in Syria. The Shayrat raid has done nothing to neutralize the other 5%—sufficient for a few more Khan Sheikhuns. Obama had the credibility to engage the Russians in the OPCW process; Trump this time seems to give priority to the use of Khan Sheikhun to discredit Russia, so hoping to shake off the charge that he has been soft on Putin.

The reality is that the only way of replacing Assad is to engage Russia (and Iran) in the process. Getting rid of IS still remains the logical first objective in the fighting. Will Bashar al-Assad provide further distractions to taunt Trump, demonstrating that the president of Syria still calls the tune? Bashar al-Assad’s has never shown that he cares how long the war lasts and how many more die in agonising circumstances. He is determined to wait out all his opponents. Perhaps, though, he needs to be more careful with his friends and Moscow must wonder whether they should not at least have him on a tighter lead. Trump plays a dangerously short-term game, obsessed with old animosities, driven by impulses and disinterested in strategy, preferring the one off deal. Given the big battles that still await Syria in Idlib province and around Raqqa, the conflict’s capacity to regenerate itself stretches on endlessly. Shayrat was barely a blip on that horizon.

Ross Burns, a former Australian Ambassador in Syria is the author of ‘Aleppo, A History (Routledge 2016).  His website ( tracks damage to Syrian monuments threatened in the current crisis. 


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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6 Responses to ROSS BURNS. After Khan Sheikhun

  1. Avatar Peter Small says:

    Here Here John Richardson. Well stated!

  2. Avatar michael lacey says:

    “The 4 April attack on Khan Sheikhun using CW (chemical warfare) weapons was almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This is the only explanation which ticks off all the boxes—means, motive and opportunity.”
    # Almost certainly! Were you almost certain in 2013 when Syria was accused then turned out to be false! Were you almost certain Iraq had WMD’s. 1 million plus Iraqis died on that lie!
    #Libya bombed into oblivion did we get up in arms about that!
    #Yemen aggressively bombed and people starving, are we up in arms about that! #Civilians bombed by western planes are we up in arms about that;
    #Drones illegally flying over countries and assassinating people are we up in arms about that!
    # I get tired of speculation as an excuse to conduct a war of aggression which is illegal. Could it have been a false flag event used as an opportunity to bomb and sure up Trump’s problems on the the domestic front!
    # Do not terrorists possess CW only government sources were removed in 2013 by international inspection.
    # Where do these CW weapons come from originally?
    # I do not know who is to blame for this incident but I do not want to bomb and destroy a country on speculation or for that matter a lie!

  3. Avatar hosscara says:

    Just as John Richardson says, some of this just doesn’t pass the pub test (getting a bit clichéd already). If there was ‘slam dunk’ evidence this would have been brandished about with a flourish and much happiness, but the absence of anything even vaguely resembling facts is telling.
    Also notice how our perceptions are being carefully shaped: Initially there was still the “allegedly committed by the Syrian government”, now there’s a definite “committed by the Syrian government”.
    When someone does the inconvenient and has audacity, nay – the temerity, to ask for some evidence or proof, the old claptrap of “Assad has done it before in 2013” is trotted out. That event too was unproven.
    Let’s dwell just for a moment on the events of the 2013 Sarin gas attack and this one and look for some similarities:
    1. Timing: Just prior to both there was significant and deep events taking place; 2013: the UN inspectors were invited, by Assad, to analyse the (alleged) rebel use of chemical weapons, a chemweps attack would certainly divert their attention.
    2017: Change of US policy on Syria (Rex Tillerson saying the Syrian people must decide Assad’s fate; i.e. Assad stays). Both highly toxic to certain cherished positions within the US establishment. In both cases Assad had most to lose from a chemwep attack.
    2. Both times the POTUS was seen as having lost the initiative/ narrative on Syria and was looking weak, remember Obama’s red lines crossed – no response. John McCain went through several shades of red and purple; Lindsay Graham was apoplectic.

    Here’s a different take on this event, purely speculation of course:
    In my humble opinion this was a false flag event.
    What if this chemical weapons attack wasn’t about Syria at all? What if this was a bareknuckled fight for control of US Foreign Policy.
    On one side: the “let’s stay out of foreign adventures” mob of Bannon and Kuchner (when they can stand each other), on the other side the neocons who now gravitate around NSA chief McMasters. The recent uttering of Tillerson about the Syrian people to decide their own fate, was a diplomatic win for Assad; and a huge loss for the “Russia/Syria/Iran is evil” clique. Besides it might be very bad for business.
    An chemical attack would also nicely wedge Trump wrt Russia.
    This chemical attack and the Tomahawk response would also make a lot of sense in reeling a wayward Erdogan back towards the coalition/NATO fold.

    Nah, the missile response was just about buying time.

    What to expect next.
    Wait for the animal training to begin, the positive reinforcement: “Trump is looking more Presidential”.
    The manipulation of the #MAGA concept: Only by foreign military intervention can Trump Make America Grate Again.
    And “let’s just sweep this Obama spied on the Trump campaign stuff under the carpet shall we?” (or else)…

  4. Avatar Stephen FitzGerald says:

    As far as I’m aware, no other Australian media, traditional or online, has carried anything remotely as insightful and clear as this.
    And one wonders what Turnbull and Bishop are running on – unprocessed feed from the Trump White House?
    Anyway, well done.

  5. Avatar John Richardson says:

    Well Ross, if you are right & all is lost for Assad, why hasn’t he already headed for the door?
    Your suggestion that Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons was designed to “frighten” his opponents into not prosecuting military action into other areas simply doesn’t pass the pub test & ignores that fact that up until the so-called terrorist attack, both the US & Russia wee focused on destroying ISIS, rather than squaring-off over the future of the Assad regime.
    The one major thing that your analysis fails to do (as is so often conveniently overlooked when it comes to analysing/understanding the machinations of governments) is to ask the simple question as to “who benefits”?
    Who really benefits from the chemical attack … certainly not Assad. Turkey perhaps? Saudi Arabia? the US? Israel? The list of suspects with a greater motive for perpetrating the attack is quite long & all of those on it have previously demonstrated that they have no qualms when it comes to mounting such attacks.
    When the so-called “coalition of the willing” was attempting to build support for an invasion of Iraq, they went to a great deal of trouble to fabricate a case to justify their endeavours, while it took years & numerous enquiries to expose their deception.
    We’ve since moved-on & these days we don’t even worry about building a case to justify our military adventures, so to avoid the tedious & potentially embarrassing necessity of having to defend our actions after the event.
    I find it telling that not one major world leader has bothered to observe that the US attack on Syria was an illegal act of aggression, undertaken without evidence of Syrian guilt of the chemical attack having been proved.
    Not one world leader has called for an independent investigation, nor for restraint while such an investigation is conducted.
    That our government has openly engaged in & encouraged such duplicity scares me more than anything-else, as it shows we have a government & politicians who will offer any lie & engage in any deceit to achieve its political ends, including the people they are allegedly sworn to serve & protect.

  6. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    There is so much in this article that is contentious that it would require more space and patience than is available to address each of the points. Putting aside the multiple assumptions that Mr Burns makes (without any evidence); and the undoubted disregard for international law that has been shown by the American attack; and the real concerns raised by Turnbull and Shorten’s eagerness to welcome this latest example of American lawlessness, perhaps Mr Burns could address one point.
    The Americans tell us that they attacked al Shayrat air base because that is where they say the CW was stored. Attacking such alleged storage facilities with missiles would be the worst possible option from a military point of view. The last thing one would do is bomb/missile attack CW stores as the resulting explosions would release the very gases the Americans are said to be condemning.
    In the event there is zero evidence that there was any CW at al Shayrat. Just as there is zero evidence that the Khan Sheikhoun disaster was caused by the Syrian government.
    Mr Assad is not the only player with the means, motive and opportunity, and the Ghouta attacks, falsely ascribed to the Syrian government as even the New York Times now admits, shows that the terrorists are just as willing to use such methods to advance their cause.

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