As Trump Considers Response to Syria Gas Attack, No Easy Options

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An apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria over the weekend left at least 42 people dead, many of them children, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma. NGOs and Western governments strongly suspect Syrian government forces are responsible along with their benefactors in Moscow and Tehran.

President Trump expressed outrage at the attack and uncharacteristically called out Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, as well as Iran, for “backing Animal Assad,” and vowing a “big price to be paid.”

Syrian Denials

The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, along with its allies Russia and Iran, are denying Syrian responsibility for the attack, variously claiming that it didn’t happen at all or suggesting that the rebels themselves are responsible for the attack.

It all has the ring of the now debunked Russian/Syrian claims about the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 80 people last year. Initially they claimed that a the Sarin gas was released from a purported rebel chemical weapons facility. But, when that explanation proved untenable, they then said it was released by an IED. A UN investigation found that the gas attack was carried out by an arial bomb dropped from a Syrian military aircraft.

According to opposition forces, the most recent gas attack was carried out by Syrian government aircraft as well. Because the area around Douma is controlled by Russian and Syrian forces who are blocking Western observers from interning the area, it’s impossible to verify these claims yet.

While it will take some time to determine exactly what happened, in the past, Syrian President Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons to terrify and demoralize civilian populations, undermining local support for opposition forces, making the population easier to pacify. This latest attack came as Syrian forces were in the process of moving on Douta, so the attack fits this pattern.The brutally agonizing mechanism of death brought by chemical weapons serves not only to sap the will to fight in Douma, but also as a warning to rebels in Islib province, a rebel stronghold in the north of the country likely to be the target of the Syrian government’s next offensive.

President Trump has been signaling over the past few weeks that he wants to pull the U.S. out of Syria. This may have led Assad to believe that Trump would have little appetite for a forceful American response to the attack. Although, Trump’s tweets over the weekend suggest he might have miscalculated. At the least, the attack will slow Trump’s plans for a withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Syria.

A Tough Position

President Trump is now mulling a response. “It was atrocious. It was horrible,” Trump said of the attack in a cabinet meeting on Monday. “This is about humanity, and it can’t be allowed to happen.” Trump said that his administration would be making a decision on a response in the next 24-48 hours. On Monday evening, as Trump dined with military leaders, he vowed that the attack “will be met and it will be met forcefully.” But, the President is in a tough position without many good options. Any American response would be complicated by the presence of Russia in the region.

Institute for the Study of Wat

Russian advisors are intermingled with Syrian government forces. Any attack on Syrian targets risks hitting Russian assets as well. Further, under a deconfliction agreement with Moscow the U.S. is required to notify the Russian military in advance of any attack, allowing them to warn their Syrian allies in advance.

Finally, Russia has indicated that a U.S. retaliation would be unacceptable. “There was no chemical weapons attack,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations  told the Security Council in a highly charged emergency meeting Monday. “Through the relevant channels we already conveyed to the US that armed forces under mendacious pretext against Syria – where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed – could lead to grave repercussions.”

This raises the stakes for Trump. Any escalation with Assad will mean an escalation with Russia that risks stumbling into a conflict neither Washington nor Moscow want. Whatever Trump decides, the national security equation has just become a lot more complicated. Meanwhile, in Douma, they are burying children.

Syrian Civil Defense/White Hats via Twitter

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