Allied strike reveals robust, 'clandestine' chemical program in Syria

Russian and Syrian forces have taken control of the area where the chemical weapons attack is said to have happened, and are denying access to it for international inspectors.

U.S. air strikes on Damascus released by U.S. Department of Defense, April 14, 2018 (Reuters)
France, Britain and the United States will continue military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad should he use any more chemical weapons on his people, the allies warned on Saturday, after carrying out strikes that morning against the embattled regime.
However, the attack appeared unlikely to shift the course of the civil war that began in March 2011.
The Western powers fired more than 100 missiles in response to a chemical attack that affected hundreds of women and children in the town of Douma, in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region, last week.
They targeted three chemical weapons facilities – a research and development center in Damascus and two installations near Homs – the Pentagon said.
The bombing was the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad to date, but the three allies said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US, France and Britain for their attack, but stressed that Iranian entrenchment endangers Syria as much as the chemical weapons.
“It should be clear to President Assad that his reckless efforts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, his wanton disregard for international law and his provision of a forward base for Iran and its proxies endanger Syria,” the prime minister said on Saturday evening.
Western powers published evidence on Saturday explaining their conclusion that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack in which, according to US officials, both chlorine and sarin were deployed from helicopters only in possession of the Assad regime.
Russian and Syrian forces – which deny involvement in the April 7 event – have since taken control of Douma, and are denying access to the site to international chemical weapons inspectors.
French Rafale jets, British Tornado jets and US B-1 bombers took part in Saturday’s raid, taking off from bases in Cyprus, France and possibly Qatar, where the US earlier this month deployed several attack aircraft. The three Western nations also moved frigates and destroyers into range over the course of last week from which they fired cruise missiles.
Their targets were core infrastructure of Assad’s “clandestine” chemical weapons program, shoddily hidden from the international community since a 2013 agreement ostensibly rid him of his entire stockpile, according to an intelligence document declassified by the French government and released in conjunction with the strike. A senior Trump administration official described the sites as “research, processing and storage facilities” critical to the program.
The attack included more than 100 projectiles – roughly twice the amount of firepower that US President Donald Trump launched against a single Syrian airstrip one year ago, in response to another chemical attack by the Assad regime against civilians.
Both springtime attacks were intended as deterrents against future chemical weapons use. The 2017 attack targeted the launch site of that attack, on Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, which took place in the infancy of Trump’s presidency.
This time, the Pentagon says that the actions were an allied response that struck a blow to the infrastructure of Assad’s chemical weapons program.
The use of chemical arms “added to that brutality” of the Assad regime’s war to regain control of Syria, and “could not go without a response,” a senior US official told reporters on Saturday.
PARIS’S DECLASSIFIED document, seven-pages long, asserts that the Assad regime has maintained a covert chemical arms program since vowing to shut it down five years ago.
At that time, then-US president Barack Obama declined to enforce his redline declared a year earlier to strike at Assad militarily in the aftermath of a sarin attack that killed hundreds of children, in exchange for removal of his chemical weapons stockpiles, and for access for the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to monitor their destruction.
Russia and the US brokered the deal at the time, which then-secretary of state John Kerry said would remove “100% of Syria’s chemical weapons.” The OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work that year.
France’s declassified assessment concludes that “beyond possible doubt, a chemical attack was carried out against civilians at Douma on April 7, 2018” and “that there is no plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed forces as part of a wider offensive in the eastern Ghouta enclave.”
And yet, Damascus shared on social media a photograph of Assad walking into work on Saturday morning, like any other day – a message to the public that nothing had changed. The Syrian government, as well as its patrons in Russia and Iran, deny that chemical weapons were used in Douma by Assad forces – or, indeed, that the Assad regime has any chemical weapons.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said in his remarks to the nation, announcing the operation. “Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States.”
He wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning that the attack was a “mission accomplished,” sparking criticism on the medium that he was echoing then-president George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq in a speech aboard the flight deck of the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier in 2003.
“A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military,” Trump wrote. “Could not have had a better result.”
In his speech, he said that the US and its allies would respond to Assad’s “atrocities” through an integrated approach – using their combined military, economic and diplomatic power.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the US president said.
“I also have a message tonight for the two governments most responsible for supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Assad regime,” he said. “To Iran and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children? The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants, and murderous dictators.”
NETANYAHU SAID that he declared Israel’s full support for Trump’s decision a year ago to take a stand against Assad’s use of chemical weapons when the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base following a previous use of chemical weapons.
“President Trump’s resolve and Israel’s support remain unchanged,” Netanyahu said. “Early this morning, under American leadership, the United States, France and the United Kingdom demonstrated that their commitment is not limited to declarations of principle.”
Channel 10 News reported that new US National Security Adviser John Bolton spoke last week with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, about the pending attack, and that Ben-Shabbat also held discussions on Thursday with British National Security Adviser Mark Sidwell and on Friday with his French counterpart, Philippe Etienne.
According to the report, Ben-Shabbat expressed Israel’s support for the strike on the chemical weapons facilities, but stressed that the greater strategic problem for Israel was Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, something that will not be solved by destroying chemical weapons facilities.
Just weeks ago, Trump surprised his Middle East allies and his national security staff by announcing his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria – deployed to fight Islamic State terrorists, but widely seen as a buffer to Iranian and Russian presences there.
He doubled down on that position in his remarks on Saturday: “Under no circumstances” will the US remain in Syria indefinitely, he said. “We cannot purge the world of evil, or act everywhere there is tyranny.”
The language suggests that Trump remains hesitant to engage militarily in the war torn country, and in the wider region, which he called a “troubled place.”
But at the same time, he added, the US will not allow the “ghastly specter” of chemical weapons use to return for the first time since its international banning in the aftermath of World War I.
As Saturday’s attack unfolded, Moscow claimed that 71 of the allied missiles were intercepted by Russian-made Syrian air defenses. But US defense officials said on Saturday that there was “zero” engagement with Russian forces, suggesting there might have been a private deconfliction agreement.
A Russian bid for the United Nations Security Council to condemn US, British and French air strikes on Syria failed on Saturday after only China and Bolivia joined them in voting in favor of a draft resolution.
The Assad regime has been engaged in a civil war against its people that has resulted in 500,000 deaths, over 7,600,000 internally displaced people, and over 5,100,000 refugees – the worst such humanitarian crisis since World War II.