Top image: the USS Ross fires a Tomahawk missile at the Syrian Shayrat Airbase.
At 7:00 in the morning on Tuesday April 4th people all over the Idlib Governorate in Syria awoke to the familiar sound of government warplanes overhead. Idlib has long been in the hands of the Syrian rebels, and as such, the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad perpetually targets it with deadly airstrikes. Samer al-Hussein and many other activists that day assumed that the Syrian government had just carried out yet another airstrike, so they prepared to head to the site of the strike as they always did. Activists like al-Hussein visit these locations to document the events and make public the names of the dead. That morning, the familiar cloud of dust and smoke rising from the site of an airstrike hung over the town of Khan Shaykhun.
But this was no ordinary airstrike. al-Hussein and his compatriots pulled their car over just outside of town when disturbing reports from other activists started filtering in. One word in particular distressed them: Sarin. When al-Hussein believed it was safe to enter the town, they arrived on a terrible scene. It was, as he describes,
“Dozens of children, women, men, and elderly people lying on the ground, getting hosed down with water, out in the cold. Children trying to breathe a gasp of air, with saliva and foam coming out of their mouths and nostrils.”
He watched as first responders tried in vain to help the dying, only to find themselves poisoned by whatever chemical was still in the air. As the victims, some 500 in number, searched for medical assistance, the Syrian Opposition’s health minister Mohamad Firas al-Jundi realized that the symptoms his patients demonstrated weren’t resultant from the chlorine gas all too often used in Northern Syria. He reported people suffering from suffocation, fluid in the lungs, foaming mouths, unconsciousness, spasms, and paralysis: In short, they were suffering not from chlorine gas, but from some variety of nerve agent. By the end of the day, 72 people were dead and 500 had suffered from nerve gas poisoning.
The chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad in Khan Shaykhun was among the most heinous actions perpetrated by a regime with an already long roster of unforgiveable human rights abuses. In addition to being morally condemnable, it was a clear violation many international laws.
After World War I, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons in wartime. However, the United States and the Soviet Union retained stockpiles of the weapons, though they mostly went unused. In 1993, the international Chemical Weapons Convention began widespread disarmament, with most nations dissembling what chemical weapons they still possessed. The Syrian government did not participate in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which allowed it to retain the weapons, including sarin, that it would eventually use against hundreds its own civilians. However, a 2013 deal brokered by Russia with the United States forced al-Assad to dissemble his chemical weapons stockpile. By the end of 2014, Syria stated that its chemical weapons were all destroyed, along with their production mechanisms.
But Bashar al-Assad kept illegal chemical weapons, which he has now used against civilians in Khan Shaykhun. Perhaps he thought the attack wouldn’t gain international attention. After all, the Trump administration had only just announced that it was pivoting away from its mission to oust al-Assad. International attention on Syria was shifting toward the fight against the Islamic State, and it seemed to all as if the world was ready to forget al-Assad’s abuses. As one woman, Om Ahmed, said after the attack:
“If the world wanted to stop this, they would have done so by now. One more chemical attack in a town the world hasn’t heard of won’t change anything.”
The chemical attack had killed her son. As far as she could tell, nobody was going to bat an eye.
Suddenly and surprisingly, the Trump administration pivoted. During the campaign, Donald Trump called for a reduction in foreign involvement. He has recently been an advocate for not interfering abroad, putting “America first” and fighting only for the country’s interests. But the chemical attack provoked a stern condemnation from the administration, which stated that the attack could not “be ignored by the civilized world.”
At 4:40 A.M., two destroyers, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, launched 59 TLAMs (Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles) at the government-held Shayrat airfield in the Homs Governorate, Syria. As I am writing, their effect is not well documented. According to the Pentagon’s official statement, they targeted “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistic storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.” Syrian and Russian officials claim that about half of the Tomahawks missed their mark, but the Pentagon states that 59 of the 60 missiles launched detonated on the airfield (one malfunctioned). Tomahawk missiles are extremely precise with the newest iteration, the Block IV, capable of rerouting mid-flight if commanders need to change their target. As such, it seems unlikely that these weapons missed their mark, as Russian officials claim.
Russia states that the missiles hit “a warehouse of material and technical property, a training building, a canteen, six MIG-23 aircraft in repair hangars, and a radar station.” (AP) The al-Assad regime claims that 80 people were killed in the strike, but this is unlikely. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that four Syrian soldiers, including a general, were killed in the attack, and dozens were wounded (Reuters). We cannot verify this claim, but the SOHR is reliable, without question more so than the Assad Regime.
The purpose of destroying the Shayrat airfield was twofold. The first reason was retaliatory. The aircraft that carried and dropped nerve agents in Khan Shaykhoun launched from this airbase, and destroying it is a direct military condemnation of the chemical attack. The second reason for destroying the airfield was to strategically cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in that region. The Pentagon’s statement alleges that Shayrat airfield was storing chemical weapons, so with any luck, those stockpiles are destroyed. It also damaged vital military infrastructure used to carry out chemical attacks. In short, the Tomahawks damaged al-Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks while dissuading him from doing it again.
World leaders have rallied behind the U.S.’s decision to strike the airfield, and only Syria’s close allies have denounced the attack. Chief among these allies is Russia, which has condemned the U.S. strike, and is taking steps to hamper the U.S. effort in Syria. Russia has suspended its deconfliction agreement with the United States, which previously required U.S. and Russian officials to give each other notice of air operations in an effort to prevent accidental conflicts between the two countries. Russia has also made a promise to bolster Syria’s air defense systems in the wake of the attack.
Vladimir Putin has long used the Syrian conflict as a means to flex his muscles and appear threatening to the world. The United States and Russia back opposing forces in Syria, and they have long been warring by proxy as a result. Policies like deconfliction were in place to prevent the two powers from ever truly coming to blows, but with the freeze on deconfliction policy a direct, if accidental, military confrontation may be more likely. In the event that U.S. and Russian forces decide to openly clash in Syria, it wouldn’t be much of a contest. The Russian military budget is only about 14% of the U.S.’s (as of 2014), and any Russian military endeavor in Syria couldn’t withstand direct U.S. engagement. But Putin’s posturing could now threaten lives, and the wise decision would be to pursue de-escalation with the U.S. For Bashar al-Assad, it’s a different story.
The U.S. has been fighting in Syria for some time now. American troops are preparing to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State, and now the U.S. government is directly attacking Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime. But we are still not at war. As per the War Powers Resolution of 1974, the president must consult with Congress before taking military action, and troops cannot be deployed for more than 90 days without Congressional Approval. This gives the President considerable leeway to authorize military action without making a formal declaration of war.
Donald Trump consulted with Congress prior to the missile strike. The White House says that roughly two dozen Congressional officials from both sides of the aisle were briefed prior to the strike. As such, the President acted well within the provisions laid out by the War Powers Resolution.
However, the time has come to formalize the U.S.’s role in Syria. After September 11, Congress gave George W. Bush the power to wage war against the perpetrators of 9/11, wherever they were. This allowed he and President Obama to pursue al-Qaida. Since the Islamic State is closely linked to al-Qaida, the Congressional authorization has been extended to allow President Obama and President Trump to take action against the IS without a formal declaration of war.
But this missile strike was not against the Islamic State. It was against the Syrian al-Assad government. That means that the protocol established to combat terrorism after 9/11 does not apply. If the administration intends to continue combating the Syrian government, it is time for President Trump to ask Congress for official authorization to go to war with Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime.
Trump appears to have actually done the right thing. The attack on Khan Shaykhun was clearly unforgivable, and the strategic use of force at the Shayrat airfield was a proportional response. Bashar al-Assad cannot be allowed to murder any more civilians. Since the commencement of the Syrian Civil War, al-Assad has shown his complete willingness to kill thousands of innocent civilians by any means necessary. It is long past time that he was forced out of power.
If the United States formally declares war on Bashar al-Assad, it will have two difficult tasks ahead of it. The first will be how to oust the Syrian dictator. Airwars, an agency that monitors coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, estimates that nearly 3,000 civilians minimum have been killed by the U.S.-led coalition. They may claim that collateral damage is unavoidable. Perhaps this is so. But the U.S. has far superior military technology and capability than any of its opponents in Syria and Iraq. There’s simply no way that all of that superiority cannot be martialed to avoid civilian casualties. Bashar al-Assad and the IS have killed too many Syrian civilians already. The United States must hold itself to a higher standard.
The second difficulty for the United States will be to determine what happens when al-Assad is gone. Too often in history the removal of one violent authoritarian only results in the rise of another. The United States must work closely with its allies in the region to ensure that Syria doesn’t slip back into the hands of brutal leaders. This is not going to be easy to resolve, but it will be necessary. The U.S. cannot simply fight to the conclusion of the war, declare mission accomplished, and go home. They did it in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is faltering to Taliban resurgence. They did it in Iraq, and the Islamic State was born in the resulting chaos. Fighting wins a war, but only peace cements its result.
Note: We encourage our readers to frequent SOHR and Airwars. These services are doing the vital groundwork to keep the world updated about human rights in Syria. Their efforts continue to fight for the country’s hopefully bright future.