If Reports Of Deadly Gas Attack In Syria Are True Will U.S. Strike As Promised?

On the anniversary of the U.S. Tomahawk missile attack on Syria, the White House may be forced to strike Assad again or face losing credibility. 

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Reports of a possible gas attack in Douma, Syria are spiking on social media. Stated casualty counts surrounding the incident vary, but some claim 45 people were killed and nearly 1,000 injured as the result of the attack, with victims showing symptoms related to the use of chemical weapons. These reports come on the one year anniversary of the U.S. attack on Shayrat Air Base in response to a gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun that happened just a few days prior.

Douma, a town in Eastern Ghouta, one of the last bastions of resistance in the area, has come under heavy bombardment in recent days as Assad's forces attempt to win back the eastern suburb of Damascus once and for all. 

The pictures and video that are said to be the result of the strike are incredibly graphic, you can check them out here, here, and here for yourself. They depict civilian women, men, and children dead with no apparent trauma to their bodies, but foaming at the mouth and appear to be asphyxiated. Other images show civilians being treated for the effects of chemical weapons exposure. The Assad regime denies that it launched a gas attack on the embattled town.

At the highest levels, the United States has said it would not tolerate another chemical weapons attack by Assad on his own people. Just last February, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned Syria of dire consequences if Assad were to execute chemical weapons strikes. He also made it clear that he doesn't think Assad destroyed his chemical weapons stockpiles as promised under the Russian-brokered disarmament deal established during the Obama administration.

Other threats from the Trump administration against Assad pertaining to the potential use of chemical weapons have repeatedly occurred since the Tomahawk missile strikes a year ago. Last June, then White House Spokesman Sean Spicer put out a statement reading:

“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Just days ago, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stated the following regarding Syria's chemical weapons:

"The Assad regime continued using chemical weapons against the Syrian people... One member [Russia] of this council shielded the Assad regime from any consequences and then blocked us from renewing the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). Our consensus broke down... Our lack of action has consequences. When we let one regime off the hook, others take notice... The use of nerve agents in Salisbury and Kuala Lumpur proves this point and reveals a dangerous trend."

Meanwhile, Russia's media machine has been running in high gear in recent weeks saying that the U.S. was planning to strike at Assad under false pretenses and that Moscow would defend its man in Damascus if such an operation were executed by Washington. Additionally, Russian news outlets continue to posit that al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army are the ones plotting chemical weapons attacks.

The already failing relationship between the U.S. and Russia has hit new lows in recent weeks following the nerve agent attack on an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom. This has resulted in the temperature being dropped diplomatically between Russia and the West, with a rash of diplomatic expulsions occurring in response. The brutal situation in East Ghouta has also led to more friction between Washington and Moscow, which you can read all about in this recent War Zone article. Kinetic engagements between Russian elements in Syria have also become a brutal reality

Yet this attack, if indeed it occurred as it is being reported, comes at an especially pivotal time. Last week was marked with headlines stating that President Trump now wants out of Syria in the short term. This goes against a slew of statements made over the last year by the Trump administration and the Department of Defense, which have repeatedly said U.S. forces will stay in Syria until ISIS is fully defeated—and even potentially longer

The White House has since stepped back from Trump's comments, with some sources saying that the President has given the DoD six months to get the job done when it comes to defeating ISIS before a widespread withdrawal of U.S. forces is initiated. Many critics think that any vacuum left by the U.S. will be immediately exploited by Syria, Russia, Turkey, and other players in the convoluted Syrian conflict and it could result in the rise of an 'ISIS 2.0' of sorts that would be reminiscent of how the terror group rapidly grew to strength and reach after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011. 

So the big question now is will the Trump administration punish Assad militarily if he did indeed launch a gas attack on his own people again? Doing so would not be as easy as it was in 2017. Russia has not only said it would actively defend Assad in a similar attack, and they would retaliate against U.S. interests in the region in kind, but they have also upgraded Assad's air defense system and integrated it with their own far more advanced air defense components. 

The Trump administration's 2017 cruise missile strikes on Syria were also laughably ineffective militarily. Shayrat Air Base was up in running again just hours after dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles attempted to pummel it into submission. Assad actually gained materiel and political support from Russia as a result of the strike and has continued his brutal onslaughts on rebel-held territories in Syria. Today Assad holds far more territory in western Syria than he did a year ago and his regime is much more secure.

With this in mind, a response to another chemical attack would likely come in the form of a far more robust set of strikes aimed at taking away something tangible and meaningful from Assad, like regime installations or his air integrated air defense network. Such an operation would require far more risk and capability and would put manned aircraft at risk, even if in the form of a handful of B-2 Spirits and F-22 Raptors. 

We'll have to wait and see how this story develops, but if indeed these deaths and injuries were the results of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime it seems that Trump and his National Security Team—which is now led by a far more hawkish cadre than it was a year ago—will be forced to act. Otherwise, they will lose all credibility on the chemical weapons use policy that they were so willing to enforce a year ago. Not following through with their myriad threats would also impact the leverage they have going into the negotiations with North Korea—a topic that is very much on the top of Trump's mind. 

Either way, the continued use of chlorine gas and the possible use of much more deadly chemical weapons is a reminder of just how ineffective America's punitive missile strikes on Syria were a year ago. They may have played wonderfully for domestic consumption, but their actual impact on Assad's war machine and decision-making process seems to have been trivial at best.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com