There are seven points to consider after the US, UK and French attacks on Syria last week.
1) Deterrence effect? If, as we are regularly told, Assad has no concern for his citizens, he is unlikely to be deterred by this year’s strike on Chemical Weapons (CW) facilities as he wasn’t after last April’s attack. If anything, the attack is likely to increase domestic support for the regime in the face of external aggression.
2) Legality The attacks seem clearly illegal under International Law. This cannot be changed by a retrospective UN Security Council resolution, which would be unlikely to survive a Russian veto anyway. Also probably not domestically lawful in the case of the US and UK or France. Neither the US Congress, the UK Parliament, nor the National Assembly in France were consulted before executive action was taken.
3) Evidence No evidence of Assad’s culpability for the CW attack was produced before the attack. Nor has a CW attack in Douma been confirmed. US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said in the post-attack media briefing that he was “confident” of Assad’s responsibility but only a few days before told Congress that he relied on social media (produced by insurgent pro-war activists) for his “evidence”.
4) Escalation not Intervention The US has been intervening in Syria since 2006 (with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to remove Assad, and overtly bombing since 2014). As has Israel, which has regularly bombed its neighbour. None of it has legal backing. This is an escalation, following a similar attack in April 2017, not a sudden intervention.
5) Timing The attack occurred immediately before the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigative team arrived in Douma, raising a number of questions, primarily: why didn’t they wait for the OPCW to investigate and report before attacking – why the urgency? As with WMD inspectors in Iraq (2003), the attacks undermine attempts by weapons inspectors to make independent judgements about the events.
6) Symbolic Trump indicated on Twitter that the attack was coming, enabling pre-emptory Russian and Syrian evacuations of personnel. Western leaders claim they were “sending a message” about the use of CW, commonly derided these days as “virtue signalling”, despite the overwhelming majority of deaths in Syria being from conventional weapons. The attack was not intended to change the course of the war, and won’t. Nor will it attenuate the broader Syrian conflict in any way.
7) Why? Assad has consolidated his control over Syria in the last 18 months, with Russian and Iranian help. Turkey is also very influential now, though it is motivated by the need to control Kurdish advances. This has reduced US influence, complicated by Western backing for some appalling extremists in the civil war (including Al Qaeda affiliates). Only a week ago Trump indicated on Twitter that he wanted to get out of Syria. The foreign policy establishment (Deep State) revolted against this, and at the urging of White Helmets and other pro-intervention activists who have been consistently lobbying for greater US involvement in Syria, see a CW attack (possibly a false flag operation) as a way of keeping Washington involved and escalating.
Just as importantly, the attack also keeps pressure on Russia (the permanent enemy of Washington’s Deep State), which Trump has been reluctant to do. By going along with the attack, Trump eases opposition pressure on him as a puppet of Putin. There is also nothing more unifying in US domestic politics than a military strike on Washington’s enemies.