The gas attack in Syria caused a number of reactions. The most dramatic was that it caused the USA to launch Cruise missile strikes on Syria, which was the first US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, apart from its bombings of Islamic State targets. This intervention may have been the reason for claims that the gas attack was faked, and was merely intended to provide a reason for the USA to intervene. This would also be the motive behind the claim that it was a false-flag attack, carried out by the USA both as a justification for intervention and to blacken the reputation of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
The USA carried out this attack on the eve of President Donald Trump’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jiaoping in Florida. The meeting with Xi was important for many reasons, not the least the fact that he had almost targeted China during the campaign, where he expressed concern that the USA had not gotten fair deals with China, because of which the USA had been losing jobs to it, and had been developing a deficit with it, not to mention the problems it was posing in the South China Sea.
It may well be a piece of typical Trump bumptiousness, to complicate needlessly a summit of such importance. At the same time, it is probably a case of bad timing. The chemical attack would not have been carried out by the Assad regime with Trump’s schedule on a particularly high priority, and with the expectation that Trump would not go in where Obama had feared to tread. That Trump ultimately reacted with a cruise missile strike could not be a precursor of a future attack.
It is true that President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles to strike the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1998, and his successor, George W. Bush, ultimately invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but the USA did not invade Sudan, even though it was hit at the same time. However, is it entirely a coincidence that subsequently a new state, South Sudan, was carved out of it in 2011?
Syria is a candidate for being carved up. It was carved up into three states after colonial occupation ended after World War II, with Israel and Lebanon being hived off from the old Ottoman province. However, there are two other components that were not given separate statehood status. The first was an Alawi quasi-state, and the second was a Kurdish state in the north. These both had been formed while France had colonized Syria as part of a League of Nations mandate. The League had divided up the empires of the losers and handed them over to the winners. Syria, which had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th century, had been given to France, which ruled it as a colony until World War II. It had depended on various minorities, including the Alawis, to support its rule. Bashar’s father Hafez had been commissioned into the air force, and rose to be its head, a position he parlayed into a takeover of the country, which he ruled from 1970 to his death in 2000, when his son Bashar took over to rule until today.
This is not the first time Bashar has used chemical weapons on his own people, the first episode being in khan Al-Asal, in which a chemical attack in March 2013 killed 26 people, including regime soldiers. Both government and rebels accused each other of responsibility. The UN investigation was delayed, and merged into that into the Ghouta attack, in which between 281 to 1729 people were killed in August 2013 in that Damascus suburb, and which led to Syria agreeing to destroy its chemical arsenal and accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Ghouta attack was probably the most well known of all the chemical attacks, but it was not the only one till the latest at Khan Sheikhun. There were attacks at Saraqib before Ghouta in April, and at Jobar and Ashrafiyat Sahnaya almost immediately after.
As at Khan Sheikhun, sarin gas was used. It was the chemical weapon of preference for Arab rulers attacking their own populations, for it was used on Kurds when they were gassed by Saddam Hussain when they went into rebellion against him back in 1991. Sarin causes death even at very low concentrations, and even if it does not kill, it causes permanent neurological damage. It is a weapon of mass destruction, and is an organo-phosphorous chemical originally developed as a pesticide.
It is interesting that some of the apologists for the Assad regime (notably Russia and Iran) have denied that the Assad regime was behind any of the attacks, including the latest. That the gas in the 2013 attacks came from Syrian government stockpiles is not denied by them, but they say that they were used by rebel forces which had captured these weapons. The original use of chemical weapons, which goes back to World War I, was to kill, or at least disable, defending troops ahead of a ground offensive by infantry. The tactic failed, with one of the main problems being that cleared trenches were not clear of gas by the time the follow-up troops arrived, and thus were liable to being affected by the gas as their enemies. In neither Iraq nor Syria were there defenders in entrenched positions, whom only chemical weapons were expected to shift. Chemical weapons seem to have been used as purely countervalue weapons, aimed at destroying the enemy population, and spreading terror among it.
However, the missile strikes also indicate the use of airpower to deliver firepower. The chemical weapons were also delivered in air strikes. It is worth noting that the Syrian Air Force enjoys complete air superiority amounting to command of the air, as the rebels do not have even anti-aircraft defences, let alone any airborne assets. The Syrian Air Force has not been hit in the air, but the use of cruise missiles indicates that the USA so far has pursued a course of action that involves a use of air power alone. It was observed in the Kosovo War in 1999, that NATO bombing ended the conflict, with no ground troops included. However, there were ground troops in the shape of the Kosovo Liberation Army who were fighting with the Yugoslavian army. In subsequent wars, the USA did not deploy air power alone, but relied on it considerably for support to ground forces. One of the advantages is that it involves relatively little risk to personnel, and (like drones) may even be unmanned.
One of the wider problems the USA has caused itself is how it will deal with Russia and Iran, which are both firm Assad supporters. Already, the exchange of targeting information between the two air forces, essential to preventing a US-Russia clash in the air, has broken down. The missile strikes seem to have notched up the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which is at its hottest in Syria, and brought in the USA and Russia. The world can only watch and hope that the superpowers are not lurching to a conflict. Syria is not far from Armageddon, according to the New Testament the site of the ‘final battle’, a concept popular amongst the religious Right which played such a significant role in Trump’s election.
However, there are two other components that were not given separate statehood status. The first was an Alawi quasi-state, and the second was a Kurdish state in the north.