Syria strikes bring sound and fury but do not signify much

Little on the ground in Syria has changed following US, French and British air strikes on Syrian targets.
Sunday 22/04/2018
UN vehicles are seen outside the hotel where experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are staying in Damascus, on April 19. (AFP)
Searching for evidence. UN vehicles are seen outside the hotel where experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are staying in Damascus, on April 19. (AFP)

TUNIS - Little on the ground in Syria has changed following US, French and British air strikes on Syrian targets implicated in the alleged chemical weapons attack on Douma.

With the last rebel buses departing from Eastern Ghouta, neither the shifting balance of power within Syria nor the territory and intentions of the war’s international protagonists has altered since the strikes.

Russia retains its dominant position across much of the country and Iran’s proxies continue to mass near Israel’s border in south-eastern Syria. In the north, Turkey is consolidating the gains of its Operation Olive Branch and the United States, supported by its Kurdish allies, maintains its increasingly reluctant occupation of the country’s east.

“Nothing has materially changed in Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity. “For all intents and purposes, President Trump and his sidekick [French President Emmanuel] Macron made some grand proclamations, blew up some empty buildings and called it a victory.

“Meanwhile, the Assad government and its allies still have most all of their war resources should they want to use them.”

Within hours of the strikes, loyalists in Damascus were on the streets voicing support for the regime. In Moscow, which both the British and the French said was notified ahead of the attack, talk was of Western “aggression.” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised that “they will gain no benefit; just as they did not while in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, over the past years, committing the same criminal acts.”

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the Western strikes was in the Presidential Palace of Damascus.

“Bashar Assad emerged from the strikes with a huge propaganda victory. He can now say that he stared down Trump, Macron and (British Prime Minister Theresa) May,” Heras said.

“President Trump gave the Resistance Axis a prestige bump with the strikes. The entire episode sends yet another signal to Russia and Iran and the wider international community that Trump is all hype when it comes to his stated goal to stop Assad. There is no substance to the administration’s Syria policy beyond the obvious one, which is to knock the crap out of [the Islamic State].”

Western reluctance to further escalate the conflict provided Russia, the regime and Iran with a propaganda victory. They have portrayed the West as acting ineffectively, while disputing that a chemical attack in Douma even took place.

As accusations of evidence tampering in Douma grow, what took place on April 7 may never be confirmed. The only experts to have visited the scene have been the Russian inspectors, who entered Douma on April 9 and subsequently claimed to have found no evidence of chemical weapons’ use.

In the West, discussion of the alleged chemical attack shifted from the regime’s use of sarin to chlorine gas. While its effects are horrific, chlorine is in a different classification than sarin because of its commercial applications and has been used by the regime throughout the conflict, without giving cause to Western action.

Chlorine causes significant respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly. Fatalities from exposure to it are typically limited. Sarin, however, causes uncontrollable muscle spasms, making breathing impossible and causing the breakdown of other bodily functions, including the discharge of bodily fluids. It is widely regarded as being among the worst of the chemical weapons within Assad’s arsenal.

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