On April 7th, 2018, Douma, the closest rebel-held stronghold near the capital Damascus, was heavily bombed in a chemical weapons attack. Nearly all observers, especially from the West, have accused the ruling Syrian regime of the attack. Russia and Iran, Syrian allies, however, have denied Assad’s involvement. One week later, on the 14th, a Western strike force led by the US, France, and the UK, returned fire with a barrage of missile strikes. These strikes were aimed at Syrian military sites, long suspected as bases that either contain chemical weapons or are manufacturing sites for chemical warfare. The attacks had no lasting impact in terms of military personnel or infrastructure lost. This tit-for-tat exchange has further increased tension between the West and the Syrian allied axis, with many analysts fearing an increase of Cold War-style political rhetoric not only in the region but also extended to many other fronts.
Since 2013, half of one million people died and hundreds of civilians have been killed by chemical weapons attacks, with thousands more severely affected. This is in direct opposition to the joining of Syria to the international Chemical Weapons Convention that same year, which required the dismantlement of all chemical weapons manufacturing sites as well as the destruction of chemical stockpiles. Following many inspections later, it was ruled that Syria has done enough in this regard to be considered as conforming to regulations. With this in mind, how has this now happened and what will the outcome of an independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemicals Weapons (OPCW) inspection tell us? As the chemical attack occurred on the 7th of April, two weeks passed between the attack and the eventual admittance of inspectors to the site by Russian and Syrian forces. As Ishak Majali, a former OPCW inspector has stated, “if you are in control of a site with chemicals for such a long time, it’s very easy to tamper with the place and change the facts on the ground”.
Iran and Russia have both denounced the retaliatory strikes from the West as “criminal” and “illegal”. However, both President Emmanuel Macron of France and British Prime Minister Theresa May have claimed their use of missile strikes were not about regime-change nor intervening in the long and bloody civil war, but in retaliation of and a deterrent against Assad’s accused chemical weapons usage. It remains to be seen whether or not these measures will carry any weight to them. Until now, the European powers have largely stayed out of the conflict, preferring to let the US take a primary role. The United States has a committed involvement in the area, with many military bases in the northeast part of the country, providing a Western presence alternative to the Russians and Iranians, as well as providing military expertise for the Kurdish fighters of the YPG, which further complicates the already contorted situation.
The entire region is embroiled in an ever more convoluted conflict, with as many sides to this coin as one could possibly think of. Perhaps the only single point of unity any of the powers have is against the Islamic State and Levant, better known as ISIS, but apart from that any and all alliances are irreversibly involved in a sick and lethal game of Twister. While Turkey openly welcomed the missile strikes against Assad, perhaps as a sign showing their support for the EU, which they have been fighting to join for many years, they are engaged in a bitter and determined fight against the YPG and their close ally, the nationalistic Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), who fight for an independent area for the Kurdish people. This desired independent area, named Kurdistan, has a geography that crosses many borders in the area, including Turley, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Understandably, the larger regional powers have taken a hard stance on the topic. The YPG is allied to the US, who trains and equips them in their battle for independence. There is a whiff of proxy warfare in this regard, as the YPG has been reported to be involved in the conflict against both Iranian covertly backed regional militias as well as Assad’s government forces, which are openly backed by Russia and Iran. Russia has supplied Syria with S-300 and S-400 air defence systems, which can reportedly be used against both missile attacks and fighter jets.
UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for restraint from all sides. Additionally, he has expressed his disappointment in the UN Security Council for not resolving the issue successfully, perhaps implying that moral ground has not been found from either side. These are the grounds that the West is coming from, as the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has repeatedly stated that no less than six Security Council resolutions against Syrian chemical warfare actions have been decisively vetoed by the Russians. This, in turn, has been renounced by Russia and Iran, who claim the West is not respecting the sovereignty of the Syrian State.
The situation on the ground seems no closer to a settlement, as neither side seems willing to budge on their stated aims and so a full-blown military conflict is perhaps edging nearer. Despite China’s calls for a political solution to the problems, this is looking like less and less of a possibility and perhaps a conflict larger and more destructive than the one in Iraq is looming. This would undoubtedly prove disastrous on an unprecedented level, with regional players such as Iran and Israel unwilling to give an inch in their own rivalry and finding in Syria a perfect battleground, and both sides with dedicated allies in global superpowers Russia and the United States. As these are patterns that echo back to the Cold War era, the ingredients and recipe for war are all here. Follow The Diplomat for further developments on this story.