Q&A: Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

ISW Senior Intelligence Planner Jennifer Cafarella responds to three key questions in the aftermath of the Bashar al Assad regime-Iran-Russia coalition’s April 2018 campaign in Syria’s capital and the associated chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Q: What was the Bashar al Assad regime looking to achieve in the latest chemical attack in Damascus?

Cafarella: Bashar al Assad’s attack against civilians in Damascus was textbook regime depravity. Assad’s forces targeted the Douma neighborhood’s largest hospital and other civilian infrastructure in order to inflict maximum casualties. Assad’s goal was to break the will of the local civilian population and force the surrender of the anti-regime jihadist group, Jaysh al-Islam, that has operated in the area. He succeeded. Jaysh al-Islam accepted a surrender deal the day after the attack to evacuate Eastern Ghouta.

Assad, enabled by his allies Russia and Iran, likely also sought to test his freedom of action and impunity. He and his backers likely calculated that the U.S. would not respond if they escalated now, after President Donald Trump signaled his ultimate desire to withdraw from Syria after defeating remaining Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) forces in southeastern Syria. Assad has routinely increased the barbarity of his violence against Syrian civilians to determine what he can get away with without risking a serious Western reprisal. 

Assad and his backers also sought to limit the extent to which the U.S. could verify the attack in order to mitigate the risks that the U.S. would be able to determine the credibility of local reporting. They reportedly disguised the nerve agent with Chlorine, an industrial agent used as a makeshift chemical weapon. They also conducted the attack in a besieged enclave in Damascus, far from the reach of U.S.-backed rebels or international observers.

Q: What is at stake for the United States as it considers its response to what President Trump described was a “heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons”?

Cafarella: President Trump ordered a proportional military strike on an Assad regime airbase in April 2017 after the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack using the nerve agent sarin. The president’s stated goals were to “degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons.” The April 2017 strike advanced the first goal by destroying a fifth of Assad’s air force, but failed to deter future chemical weapons use. Assad repeatedly used chlorine gas against population centers in the lead up to the April 7, 2018 in Douma that included a nerve agent according to an initial U.S. investigation. President Trump and his team must now contemplate what the U.S. can do to establish effective and sustained deterrence against Assad and his Iranian and Russian enablers.

The Assad-Russia-Iran coalition’s war effort in Syria poses a strategic problem for the U.S. beyond the use of banned weapons in war crimes against civilians. Their war effort poses a fundamental threat to vital American national interests. It strengthens jihadists, extends Iranian hegemony, threatens the security of key U.S. allies and partners including Israel and Jordan, undermines NATO’s unity and deterrence posture, and perpetuates the refugee crisis that has weakened Europe. President Trump’s immediate focus may be on chemical weapons and the anti-ISIS campaign, but it is important to recognize the bigger interests we have at stake in the war in Syria. 

Q: What are you watching for in the immediate U.S. response?

Cafarella: The key here is what the U.S. sets as its objective, which should shape the concrete set of military options President Trump is considering. The Trump Administration defined the U.S. strike against the Shayrat Airfield in April 2017 as a proportional response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack at that time. Assad’s use of chemical weapons despite the threat of U.S. reprisal requires the U.S. to rethink what actions – military and non-military – are required to restore deterrence. President Trump has stated that he intends to hold Russia and Iran accountable for enabling the Assad regime and its war crimes. That could mean he is considering military options to inflict costs on Russia and Iran directly and that he will not limit his strikes to Assad regime targets.

Holding Russia and Iran accountable for their support to Assad’s chemical weapons attacks is important. It will not be sufficient to accomplish American interests, however. Any near-term military response in Syria will be most effective if it can serve as a bridge to a new Syria policy that addresses the wider American interests at stake in Syria beyond ISIS and the deterrence of chemical weapons use.