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Expert View: Will U.S. Strike Stop Further Chemical Attacks in Syria?

Syria Deeply speaks with experts in our community to understand whether the U.S. strike against Assad will deter the Syrian government – or other parties – from using chemical weapons in Syria.

Written by Kim Bode, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A protest was held in central London on April 8, 2017, to protest against Assad and the recent chemical attack in Idlib. Jay Shaw Baker/NurPhoto

Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked members of our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. As part of this series, we asked some of our experts whether this attack would prevent the Assad government from launching further chemical attacks and how it would affect the government in general.

Karim Makdisi, associate professor of international politics and director, public policy and international affairs program at the American University of Beirut: First it has to be verified who did the chemical attack, then who [exactly] was it, was it Assad’s level or mid-level? Once we have the report [from the OPCW], then the attribution can begin, but the question has to be, first, who did what? If it’s clear that the government used these chemical weapons, then why did they do it? If the Syrian army kills 10,000 people, it’s fine – but if they use chemical weapons, the whole world looks at [them].

It doesn’t make sense to me. Some people have told me these people are irrational. If that’s true, of course the U.S. strike is not going to be a deterrent. If they are rational, how do you explain that they did this? Pure terror perhaps. But they’ve gotten away with all sorts of [weapons], and now they do the one and only thing that disrupts, that creates a wedge between Russia and us. The question of deterrence really depends on the motive.

Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The Trump administration, by choosing to conduct these strikes, has reinjected some ambiguity into U.S. foreign policy. By that I mean the ambiguity of deterrence – the idea of “they might hit us, they might strike.” The threat that the U.S. can act militarily is a real threat.

How the Assad regime and other actors around the world view this is still very uncertain because the expectation is that it needs to be followed with some kind of a strategy or doctrinal position. And we need to remember that strategy is only as good as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances practically and in some cases strategically.

The administration will have to do a good job of messaging in broad enough and ambiguous enough terms what kind of costs occur for third countries or parties behaving this way, that either violate international norms or put U.S. interests at risk. That’s still missing from this equation. I don’t think we’re anywhere near where the outlines of a Trump doctrine are ready for primetime.

Whether or not the Assad regime changes its behavior or adapts to this is a guessing game. If the Assad regime decides to do more of the same, it runs the risk of pushing the U.S. up the escalatory ladder. It could affect some of the tactical decision-making but at the strategic level, whether or not the Assad regime will continue to wage a civil war, that strategic calculus remains unchanged.

Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: It won’t prevent that. I don’t think they had all their chemical stores in Shayrat. But I think it’s definitely weakened them. For the regime, it’s been pretty well known their air force has been in pretty bad shape for a long time. That’s one of the reasons why the Russian intervention has been so transformative for them. And so losing 20 aircraft is a big deal. I’m sure they are doing a lot of strategizing. So I think it has damaged them, but I think the main purpose was to send a strong message and I am hopeful.

Rami G. Khouri, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut: I don’t think they are going to change anything except probably not use any chemical weapons for a while, or maybe forever, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s going to change any of the other regime tactics.

They are going to keep doing what they are doing. They are going keep attacking the rebels in the area where they are gathered now, in Idlib, and south of Aleppo in one or two pockets. I think they are going to keep attacking them and giving them a hard time to finally get them to completely lay down their arms, but they probably won’t use chemical weapons because the Americans have made it very clear that they will respond militarily to chemical weapons by attacking a bunch of buildings.

Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington D.C.: That is the key question. We will have to wait and see, but the attack should set the standard for responding to any future attacks. It will be hard to imagine the United States ignoring other – credible – attacks if they happen in the future. If no related blowback to the strikes occurs and if the regime is deterred from further use of chemical attacks against civilians, this will put to rest the question of whether President Barack Obama’s backing away from the red line he set in 2013 was the right thing to do, and whether the rationale for the inaction was merely excuse-making. It will show that many souls could have been saved if the former president had acted to protect international norms in this regard. So, I think the American response deals with a broader issue, related to defiance of international law. The strikes raise the stakes for Damascus and its allies, as well as Washington and the rest of the world, the next time such incident takes place, in a way the Russian-American agreement during the Obama administration did not.

Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver: No, I don’t think it will. I think it will send a message clearly to the Assad regime that if it tries to use chemical weapons again, given the statement that Trump made last night and given the world’s reaction to this, that Bashar al-Assad will certainly think twice about using chemical weapons. But I don’t think it will change the battlefield conditions on the ground very much.

I suspect that there might be some pause in using airstrikes and I suspect for the next week or so there will be a reduction in the number of Syrian airstrikes on rebel-held positions, but I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything in terms of the battlefield conditions on the ground. What we know from the statement that Rex Tillerson made last night, he said that U.S. policy on Syria has not changed at all. I interpret that to mean there’s no interest on behalf of the Trump administration to get involved in this war. This was simply a one-off event in response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more.

These statements have been edited for length and clarity.

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