Syrian chaos promises further conflagration

Two flashpoints have emerged that threaten to escalate the conflict in Syria.
Tuesday 10/04/2018
Encircled: Russian Permanent Representative to the United Natons Vasily Nebenzya (3rdR) arrives for a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters, April 9. (AFP)
Encircled: Russian Permanent Representative to the United Natons Vasily Nebenzya (3rdR) arrives for a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters, April 9. (AFP)

TUNIS - Over the space of a few days in Syria, two flashpoints have emerged that threaten to escalate the conflict to unprecedented levels.

The Syrian regime was accused of carrying out a chemical attack April 7 on the Damascus suburb of Douma in Eastern Ghouta. Early on April 9, two Israeli F15s struck at regime targets near Homs, killing 14, including at least four Iranian “special advisers.”

Both French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump promised to respond to the alleged chemical attack if no action from the United Nations was forthcoming. Both have previously referred to former US President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own red line on chemical weapons use and vowed not to repeat that error.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia warned of “grave repercussions” in the event of any independent action against Syria. Russia has denied the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, dismissing the accusations as “fake news” after sending experts to the region.

It had been assumed the Israeli strike on the regime T4 airbase near Homs was a response to the attack at Douma. However, this was the second time T4 has been hit by Israeli air strikes this year, suggesting it could be party of a wider campaign against Iranian action there. The previous attack, in February, occurred after a drone launched from the base penetrated Israeli airspace. Tel Aviv, in line with past policy, has not commented on the recent strike.

Though the motivations behind the strike may be unclear, US and French positioning has been unambiguous. Promising a decision imminently, Trump tweeted that Damascus, Moscow and Tehran would all pay a “big price” for the attack.

After meeting with military officials April 9, Trump confirmed his determination to respond, saying: “We have a lot of options militarily and we’ll be letting you know pretty soon. Probably after the fact.”

CNN Turk reported that the USS Donald Cook, a US Navy missile destroyer, was just off Syria’s territorial waters where it is said to have been harassed by low-flying Russian jets.

Moscow continues to strenuously deny the accusations. After dispatching specialists to the area on Monday, the Russian Defence Ministry issued a statement saying that no trace of chemical weapons had been located. “All these facts show… that no chemical weapons were used in the town of Douma, as it was claimed by the White Helmets” the statement read, continuing to brand reports of its deployment as “fake news.”

The Russian denials were contradicted by reports from the pro-opposition Ghouta Media Centre in Douma, which stated that more than 75 people had “suffocated” during the attack and another 1,000 people showed symptoms of exposure to chemical weapons.

Twitter postings from the group claimed a barrel bomb had been dropped by a helicopter. The group said the bomb contained sarin, a toxic nerve agent.

Supporting reports from the Ghouta Media Centre and the White Helmets relief agency, the US-based Union of Medical Relief Organisations, which works with Syrian hospitals, told the BBC that the Damascus Rural Specialty Hospital had confirmed 40 deaths.