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What lessons can be drawn from the military strikes on Syria? Getting out of the Syrian trap

(B2) Americans, French and British show their biceps in Syria. What is the justification for this action? Is it legitimate? Did it have a military or geopolitical effect? Can it have an influence on the conflict? Why does Bashar persist in using chemical weapons? Why did the Russians let the strikes go through? Lots of questions… few answers

A legal or legitimate strike?

Is Bashar's regime responsible?

Yes. The Damascus regime committed in 2013 to dismantling its entire chemical arsenal, under the control of inspectors from the UN and the OPCW. It violated this commitment repeatedly, by replenishing its stockpiles, failing to declare certain research centers and, ultimately, using the chemical weapon on the ground. It has also repeatedly violated the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war, such as the United Nations Charter.

Did Bashar regularly use chemical attack?

Yes. The Damascus regime has regularly used chemical weapons since the beginning. He sometimes bragged about it. More often he hid it. Every time he tried to cover up these facts, an international investigation proved the opposite. The succession of facts is eloquent (read our file No. 59. Chemical attacks in Syria, red lines and small strikes). The rebels also used this weapon – this was the case with Daesh –. The facts in this case could be quickly established. In this case, in Ghouta, the regime was alone in a position to carry out this strike. And everything points to the regime. But no 'physical' proof exists of his involvement. We are in more of what jurists might call a serious body of concordant evidence. Which weakens the 'legality' of the attack.

Why strike in the event of the use of chemical weapons and not other war crimes?

There are two reasons. First of all, chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction, prohibited by international law. They are called the poor man's weapon because they require few technical resources. Their danger is not only the number of human losses it can cause, but the contamination of the weapon in other areas. Then there is a pragmatic reason. The Damascus regime's strikes regularly target hospitals, ambulances, bakeries, supply centers and civilians. War crimes… even crimes against humanity, equally reprehensible. But they were never considered by the Allies as a 'red line' nor as an attack on their national interests. Which would have forced them to intervene daily in the conflict. Finally, there is the notion of political display: the Allies have displayed a 'red line' on chemical weapons. If they allow this weapon to be used on a daily basis, their words are devalued on the international scene.

Is the strike authorized by the United Nations?

No. This is an argument used by Jean-Yves Le Drian. But it is not entirely accurate. Certainly resolution 2118 of September 27, 2013 provides for the dismantling of chemical weapons. And its paragraph 21 provides for a possible use of force in the event of violation of this resolution. But this application did not seem automatic. A new Security Council resolution is needed to intervene under Chapter VII. “ In the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including the unauthorized transfer or use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, it will impose measures under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations ". The Secretary General of the UN, the Portuguese Antonio Guterres, was quite explicit on this point. “ The Security Council is primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. (cf. communicated of April 14). As for invoking self-defense, another reason for intervention, we see no criterion for invoking this element, even if the “national security interests” aspect is invoked.

Can we compare with the situation that prevailed in Iraq in 2003?

No. On Syria, we find ourselves in another situation. In 2003, the assertion of the existence of weapons of mass destruction came only from the Americans and British, without independent verification. A good part of the international community (starting with France and Germany, but also Sweden, Austria and Turkey) had serious doubts about these elements. In the case of Syria, most of the facts have been carefully verified not only by different services of several countries, but by an international verification mechanism (the joint investigation mechanism composed of experts of different nationalities from the UN and of the OPCW). However, it had to interrupt its work on November 16, 2017... A Russian veto (anxious to protect the Syrian regime) was placed on its renewal. Comparing the two situations is therefore quite simply an ideological prejudice. All European countries, for example, are unanimous in attributing responsibility to the Syrian regime, which is relatively rare when we know the differences in sensitivity on the need to negotiate, or not, with the Bashar regime (1).

Bashar's regime and chemical weapons

Why does Bashar use chemical weapons when he is in a position of strength?

Bashar's regime uses chemical weapons, to save forces, either to finish “cleaning” an area, and liquidate the last pockets of resistance, at lower human cost; or as a weapon of terror, a signal that it is now time to evacuate or negotiate the evacuation. He wants to quickly put an end to the rebel pockets, to move on to another, more political sequence (a little under pressure from his allies who also want to put an end to this conflict).

What is the military interest of this weapon?

We can summarize the attraction of chemical weapons for the Bashar regime (as for the other participants in the Syrian war), by a maximum effect for a minimum cost (human and financial).

First, the use of chemical weapons makes it possible to clear an area, with minimal engagement of forces and maximum effect. As the gas infiltrates everywhere, it is particularly effective in urban areas, “ making it possible to dislodge enemy combatants sheltered in homes, in order to engage in urban combat under more advantageous conditions ", as explained by one notes of the French army.

Secondly, it is a weapon of terror, which strikes combatants and civilians, women and children indiscriminately; the effect is to sow panic among combatants and civilians alike. Clearly, this involves emptying the area or forcing the survivors to negotiate.

Third, with a single, relatively limited sequence of shots, he disorganizes the rear. It 'saturates' the relief and care structures which are overwhelmed with injured people, and is forced to abandon the usual trauma activity. Clearly, combatants who are victims of conventional weapons will not receive priority treatment.

Isn't this provocative towards the international community?

Bashar's regime has not cared about international respectability since the beginning. It has its own logic which is to win the fight against what it calls 'terrorist' groups (some really are) and to ensure its control over its civilian population. That has no price. Statistically, throughout the Syrian war, the chemical weapons used caused a relatively “minimal” number of deaths compared to conventional weapons (less than 1% of victims).

The effect of the strike: military or political

What is the nature of the strike of the three allies?

The strike remains in the realm of political doxa. It is not strong enough to be a deterrent for the Syrian regime, nor intense enough to destroy all its capabilities. This is why the American-Franco-British coalition speaks of a “limited” and “proportionate” strike. Which is correct. But it is sufficiently marked (around a hundred missiles fired), and strong (by three allies), not to be considered a negligible quantity. We can mention that it is supported by most European countries (even if it is sometimes lip service), as well as by most countries in the region, directly or indirectly involved in the conflict, countries as different as Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia or Qatar).

Was the strike a military success?

From a military technical point of view, without a doubt. The strikes were carried out, in a masterly, coordinated manner, both by air and sea (read: The American-French-British coalition strikes four Syrian sites (V3)), even making it possible to test new weapons, without losses on the Allied side (we still have to see the balance sheet on the Syrian civilian side). From a geopolitical point of view, we can also consider that there is a small success (see below). In terms of its effect on the course of the conflict, we can say that it is rather a doom and gloom (see below).

Will this attack degrade the conditions for using chemical weapons?

It's all a question of appreciation. Even assuming that all the targets were indeed destroyed and that the equipment indicated was still present on site, the real effect of the strike must be put into perspective. Setting up a chlorine weapon, a commonly used product, is relatively easy. That of sarin gas is more complex, because it requires being able to obtain certain products and conservation techniques. But it is within the reach of a regime like Syria. If there is a deterioration, it can only be temporary, while stocks are rebuilt.

Will the strike be effective on the war in Syria?

No. A regime as bloody as Bashar's is not short of a few hundred deaths. It has already been hit several times without really suffering any disasters. He has already used chemical weapons on several occasions, despite threats, despite a strike. He can reuse it.

In the absence of a military effect, what is the desired geopolitical objective of this strike?

The Allies are trying to regain a foothold in a conflict that has largely escaped their control. They are not really present either militarily or diplomatically. On the ground, their military commitment is limited to the fight against Daesh. To reverse the advances of the Syrian regime, supported by its Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies, a military investment would be required, none of which seems to have either the intention or the means (in human losses) to engage more deeply in the conflict. On the diplomatic level, all initiatives are blocked by the Russians. Carrying out a strike is a way of saying not only to Assad, but especially to his allies, that there is still a determination to see certain limits to the conflict put in place. Finally, we must not neglect it (even if it is not the primary objective), this strike makes it possible to close ranks between the Allies, in particular between the Americans (and French) and the Turks, who thus find themselves on the same side, and no longer facing each other.

The effect of the strike on Bashar's allies?

How is this a signal to Russia?

It is a question of getting out of the trap set by Russia for the West, of being able to say to Moscow that if its diplomacy continues to block all points of the negotiation (on the political transition, on the chemical investigation, on the simple condemnation of the regime…), Westerners will not hesitate to resort to other means, to circumvent the Russian blockade. On this level, the first round is won. The message was also well received in the Kremlin which, all in all, reacted with a certain moderation. The second remains to be won: getting the Russians to give the green light to the deployment of a new fact-finding mission.

Is this also a signal to Bashar's other allies?

We can say that at least for Washington. American President Donald Trump continues to point the finger at the Iranian regime, particularly for its ballistic and nuclear program and its role in the region (in Syria but also in Yemen). The United States is thus sending a subliminal message to Tehran. Don't go too far...

Why do we say that the Russians are in a strong position?

The Russians are acting on three fronts. On the one hand, they provide equipment and operational support for the actions of the Syrian regime. On the other hand, they act on the political level in trio with Iran and Turkey (which supports the rebels to the regime) by trying to establish deconfliction zones, having their own negotiation schedule, outside of international time. Finally, they protect their ally by systematically vetoing any alternative initiative of the alternative community, whether it concerns the investigation mechanism, the diplomatic condemnation of the Syrian regime, and even less any action under the chapter VII. They have thus trapped the Euro-Atlantic allies in a political-military trap.

Were the Russians informed of the strike?

Yes. The Russians were informed, if not of the exact content of the strikes, at least of their existence, their intensity and the timing, on the one hand through their own means of listening. The Allied preparations were made discreetly, but not secretly (the movements of the ships in particular were easily perceptible by the Russians who have their surveillance devices in the region). On the other hand, by the allies themselves, as officially confirmed by the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly. The telephone worked between Western and Russian capitals. The Allies were also careful not to target Russians (2), to prevent them from being involved. This is called the deconfliction mechanism.

Why didn't the Russians want to intervene?

Three reasons main ones (which are not contradictory):

1° Militarily, it is a question of not exposing its anti-missile shield to the possibility of failure and of retaining its power of deterrence (if the Russians had affirmed the contrary, wanting at all costs to protect Syrian territory and that several missiles had nevertheless passed, it would have been a military defeat);

2° It is a question of having the good role, from an international point of view, of being able to counter-attack at the level of international authorities, by adorning oneself with all the possible arguments of international law (violation of sovereignty, do not add war to war);

3° Geopolitically, it is a question of reminding the Syrian ally that, without Russian protection, it is more exposed. A subliminal way of reminding Bachar of the rules that he must not go too far.

Are we not in a role play between Western Allies and Russians?

Yes. The Allies strike. Which allows them to show that they still have some resources and that a red line remains a red line which must not be crossed. They can then play the political part. The Russians let it pass and then protested vigorously, but ultimately measured. On the ground, they will continue to support the Syrian regime militarily. We are in a classic game, now on an international level, of block against block.

The effect on the war

Is there a risk of escalation?

This risk cannot be dismissed out of hand. It exists, even if it is measured. Looking at the Russian reaction, for the moment quite measured, we can say that the risk of escalation is limited. But the Syrian government has its own resources which it could use.

Does the war have a winner?

For now yes. Bashar, Moscow and Tehran are clearly on the verge of winning their bet. Some fine strategists had bet on Russian exhaustion: Russia no longer had the means for a war, it would exhaust itself in a few months, the regime was cornered, and the war had a cost for Iran, they said. they. It has not happened. These experts underestimated the adversary's capacity to endure losses, to be ready to commit financially... which Westerners are not willing to do, either because they do not want to, or because they do not cannot, or both.

What is the current toll of the war in Syria?

Bloody. All weapons combined, and all forces combined (legitimate forces, rebel forces, terrorist groups), we have an average figure of nearly 200 deaths per day since the start of the conflict (rather an increase compared to the start of the conflict), with an overall toll of more than half a million deaths over the seven years of the war (511.000 dead in mid-March according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), not counting the wounded (more than one million), refugees (more than 5 million people have left Syria) and displaced people (6 million have migrated within the country)… out of a population of 20 million.

How to end the conflict?

It must be said clearly. Unless we want to outbid the support for the arms of a few rebel groups, which is beyond the reach of Westerners, there remains only the second solution: convince the rebel groups to give up their arms, negotiate for them a certain way out, at least need through exile, end the conflict as quickly as possible, sign armistices, to arrive at the second phase, pacification, reconstruction. This is a very difficult reality to say, almost paradoxical. We can only defeat the Bashar regime through peace...

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(1) NB: we can add that today at the UN or in European diplomats, certain diplomats involved in the revelation of the facts of 2003 (for example the head of the Swedish delegation Olof Skoog who was the political advisor of Hans Blix, the head of the UN mission). Certainly, if they had doubts, they would be expressed by their governments. This is in no way the case.

(2) Unlike the strike carried out in northern Syria by the American army. Read : Who is the Wagner group, Putin's privates who act in Syria?

Photo: Launch of a Tomawakh missile by an American ship of the 5th Fleet (credit: US Navy – Matthew Daniels)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).