It’s been a few days since the United States, Britain and France launched strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Now that we’ve had a chance to hear the reports and the reactions, here are a few thoughts and what it all means and what to expect going forward.
The strikes were launched in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (again) against his own people in the civil war. Chemical weapons have been outlawed by international treaty. The US and Soviet Union signed the treaty in the 1970’s and most recently Syria agreed in 2013 to all provisions of the treaty when they agreed to give up all of their chemical weapons following international outrage over Assad’s use of chemical weapons in suburbs of the capital Damascus which killed over 1400 civilians, including 426 children.
Syria Says They Didn’t Do It
Let’s just call it like it is-if you believe this you just aren’t very bright. It’s beyond naive. Who would use chemical weapons against Syrian rebel-controlled areas if not the Syrian government? (ok, possibly Iran or Russia, Syria’s only real allies but let’s set them aside for now). Assad has already used chemical weapons on multiple occasions so we know he is not above doing it.
The Syrian government floated the idea that the British were actually the ones that used chemical weapons. Huh? Thinking Man can’t follow that logic in anyway, so we can leave that without comment except to say that the fact Syria came up with such an absurd charge means they must be reaching for any explanation.
Finally, only this week refused access to international inspection and medical teams who wanted to visit the site of the attack. If an international team could help independently verify that the government wasn’t involved why didn’t they allow it? And why haven’t they turned over the evidence they have that the British were responsible? Of course we know the reason-because they are trying to cover their actions.
Reaction In the US
Unsurprisingly, a segment of the political spectrum has said the strike was a terrible mistake. The arguments are that we aren’t yet sure that Assad was totally responsible and that Congress has to approve a declaration of war.
For the reasons above, we can be sure that Assad was responsible even if the United Nations or the World Health Organization haven’t come out and declared that yet.
And Congress does have to approve a declaration of war. As it should be. But this is hardly a declaration of war nor does the War Powers Act apply here. This case was clearly a limited action (though one repeated from about a year ago when the US launched a smaller strike for the same reason). It was done because of a gross violation of international law and was a reaction to a crime against humanity. Such a act requires a response from the world’s only superpower! We saw what happened when President Obama infamously said the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line’ and then refused to take action when that line was crossed.
And the strike was not only limited but limited in its objectives. The attack was aimed at chemical weapons facilities for production and storage of weapons of mass destruction. The attack clear and stated goal was to keep chemical weapons from being used again.
Russia Is Still An ‘Evil Empire’
Russia is the only significant power backing Syrian President Assad, other than Iran and the terror group Hezbollah who has sent militia troops to Syria. Russia brokered an agreement that had supposedly gotten Assad to agree to get rid of all his chemical weapons. Clearly that didn’t happen. Assad lied and cheated on the agreement. Since he used chemical weapons a year ago, Russia knew that Syria had cheated even before this most recent incident.
Yet Russia has sent significant armed forces to Syria to help Assad, without which the common consensus is that the Assad regime probably would not have survived and the rebels would have forced him out. Only when Russian air power and armed forces entered the war did Assad start to turn the tide.
As the country responsible for keeping him in power, for selling him all of his weapons and giving him large amounts of financial aid, Russia holds almost absolute sway over Assad. He would not be in power if it were not for Russia. In addition, it was Russia that had come to his rescue once before and gotten the world to hold off on any action if Assad would agree to give up his chemical weapons. So you know that Russia knew in advance what Assad was planning and gave consent.
So in the last two months or so, Russia has condoned the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations, used a nerve agent in England in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian and his daughter now living there. And of course, both of those recent incidents are on top of the invasion of the Ukraine and invasion of Georgia in the last decade.
President Obama made fun of Mitt Romney in one of their presidential debates for calling Russia a major enemy. Well, it should be obvious to everyone now that Russia is 1) evil, 2) led by an evil dictator 3) dangerous and a threat to the international community and 4) still every bit the evil empire.
Trump Was Right On This One
On this issue, President Trump reacted just as he should have in several ways.
Though Defense Secretary Mattis was right in advising the President to be careful about attacking with no end in mind, the US needed to act strongly and act quickly when a crime so egregious and so contrary to the human conscience was fostered on civilians. Additionally, President Trump had said a price would be paid for using chemical weapons. The President of the United States cannot and should not make idle threats. If he (or she) is going to speak, then the words ought to mean something.
Russia not only publicly backed Syria’s claim of innocence, it went much farther. Russian President Vladimir Putin said they would respond militarily and would attack any ship that participated in any military action against Syria. The second way President Trump was right was to in effect say to Russia, ever so tactfully as he always does (sarcasm intended) “you had better not get in the way because we are going to make Assad pay”. It certainly gives one pause when a country such as Russia issues a threat and there is evidence that the US took steps to minimize the risk to ships in the region and to prepare for their defense. Yet on such a big issue, President Trump moved forward. Fortunately, Russia backed down on their threat of war.
The attack was large (over 100 air and land launched missiles involving two of our major allies) and it was targeted to achieve a specific purpose, that being to put an end to further production of chemical weapons and a deterrence against using any remaining stockpiles that Assad has on hand.
Finally, and significantly, President Trump did not mince words in calling out Russian President Putin, by name and very candidly. He said he held Putin responsible for standing by such an “Animal” as Assad. That language was very appropriate and crystal clear.
Hopefully, this will show Syrian President Assad that it’s not in his best interest to use chemical weapons and to commit crimes against his own people. Also, one hopes that the attacks limit, if not eliminate, his ability to do so in the future even though we know that he has stockpiles on hand that weren’t targeted due to the risk of exploding a chemical weapons depot.
Yet, Assad and his Russian friend and President Vladimir Putin do not play by what we would see as normal rules. This is not the first or second or third time that Assad has committed these atrocities. There is nothing he won’t do to hold onto power. And Russia and Russian President Putin have no moral compass that would have them keep him from doing so. And since we know there are still chemical weapons in Syria, there is a chance Assad may use chemical weapons again. If so, the US and its allies need to not just send a signal but should eliminate all means of him being able to use chemical weapons. By that, Thinking Man would be in favor of a prolonged air campaign to eliminate not only chemical weapons facilities but 1) air bases that house planes and helicopters that could deliver the weapons, 3) military planes and helicopters themselves, 4) any military repair facilities that could repair any of those, and 5) air defense sites that would defend any of these. If ‘sending a message’, even a strong one doesn’t work, then for such crimes against humanity, the US should do what it needs to do in order to see that it won’t happen again. If somehow after a prolonged air campaign leaves chemical weapons that aren’t found, there should be no Syrian air power left to deliver them.
For Russia’s part, we should take steps now and should be prepared if this happens again. Sanctions and diplomatic protests taken two weeks ago by more than 20 countries against Russia for their assassination attempts in Britain apparently had little effect. And now this. Russia could have prevented chemical weapon use and didn’t. And, of course, it clearly lied when it said that Syria had gotten rid of the weapons and was not producing any more. Among the things we should do would be to 1) send weapons to the Ukraine to help them defend themselves against Russia including heavy weapons. Currently, the country is divided and Russian backed forces threaten to continue to take more of the country. We should do more to actively help them defend themselves. 2) Additional sanctions, ones that will hurt and are not just window dressing, should be implemented as most appropriate. 3) President Trump should reverse President Obama’s decision not to move ahead with plans to put missile defense systems in Poland and Czechoslovakia, both former Russian allies. 4) President Trump should issue a warning to Russia now, that if there is a recurrence of chemical weapons use that Russian armed forces will have 72 hours to evacuate Syrian military bases or risk being hit in attacks that will be launched and if that happens, we should launch those attacks even if Russian forces get in the cross fire (or maybe hope that they do and be prepared for that contingency).
Chemical weapons use on civilian areas, which simply are controlled by rebels fighting the government, has happened several times during the civil war in Syria. Syrian President Assad is an animal and Russian President Putin is not really any different. As a commentator so correctly pointed out, the risk is that the use of chemical weapons becomes normal. The world simply cannot let that happen. Period.