by Gilles Dorronsoro
By no stretch of the imagination does the Western bombing of Syria following the chemical weapons attack by the Bashar al-Assad regime on its people constitute a sufficient or proportional response to this crime. Nevertheless, it is legitimate and should be used to launch the debate on sustained long-term protection for the Syrians.
Is there any doubt about the Syrian regime’s responsibility? No, we only have to look in Damascus for the guilty party. The sole open question is the level of complicity by the Iranians and the Russians. Russians have committed war crimes with bombing runs on civilians. Should we wait for the conclusions of an international inquiry and rely on the UN? As of today, the conditions for conducting an international inquest with a minimum of security and freedom have not come together. Moreover, the UN’s track record in the Syrian crisis to date has been catastrophic, from letting humanitarian aid be diverted by the regime to the failure to deprive Syria of its chemical weapons after the August 2013 sarin gas attack. Syria has stockpiles of gas that the international inspections lack the means to destroy. Thus, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded that sarin gas was used in the attack on Khan Shaykhun in 2017 and laid the responsibility at the regime’s feet.
Why does the regime resort to gassing? The question matters because it conditions the response due the Syrian regime in the longer term. One argument frequently heard for holding the regime blameless is the lack of a military rationale for attacking with gas, because the insurgent pocket was destined to fall in any case. In fact, the attacks with gas above all send a political message to Syria’s own society and to Westerners. If the latter look the other way, they discredit themselves: recall how the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene changed the dynamics of the war and helped pull a regime on the verge of collapse back from the brink. If they act, they polarize the situation, solidify the regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and, come the next chemical attack, will only confront their own impotence. Hence, the bombings ordered by Donald Trump in 2017 after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack obviously did nothing to deter the regime. In addition, Bashar al-Assad sends a message to his population. You are alone, there is no limit to what we can do: gas attacks on civilians, rape on a massive scale, torture (with hundreds of thousands of victims, and tens of thousands of them killed), systematic bombing of hospitals, and the list goes on.
Is there a risk of escalation? Contrary to what one reads here and there, this risk is practically zero. The United States has been careful to telegraph the bombardments (and most likely the targets) so that no Russians or Iranians would be affected. Instead, the current stage of the Syrian war is one marked more by military de-escalation, due to Turkey, the United States, and Russia (plus Iran) having set up de facto protectorates over various parts of Syria. These powers have no interest in escalation and it is highly unlikely that Israel can break their implicit agreement to avoid direct confrontations.
What effect will the bombing have? None, from a military point of view. From a political standpoint, however, it may have two consequences. First, we know that Trump a few weeks ago wanted to pull out of Syria in short order. In the near term, the bombing should keep the United States from leaving. Furthermore, if the Americans left, the area currently controlled by the PYD (the PKK’s Syrian branch) would be rapidly overrun by Damascus (or possibly in part by Turkey). Indeed, Afrin made it clear that the PYD cannot hold its ground without international support. Supporters of the Syrian Kurds, including in France, must understand that it is the presence of American troops that keeps the Kurdish movement from being liquidated. This is a fragile presence, subject to the goodwill of an unstable president and one whose impeachment cannot be excluded.
These bombardments—in themselves of no great importance—ought at least to lead to reformulating the problem of long-term protection for the areas of Syria not under the regime’s control. A tit-for-tat logic—one gassing, one bombardment—must be urgently abandoned and a long-term strategy developed instead. Only international protection of the areas outside Damascus’ control can guarantee security for civilians exposed to the regime’s attacks. Regrettably, this protection can only be provided outside the UN, where Russia will block any constructive resolution. An international initiative—and why not one led by France?—could, for example, call for installing a protective system for the areas beyond the Syrian regime’s reach under military guarantees by the Western powers. Practically speaking, this type of solution would require stationing international observers and setting up a no-fly zone. Bombing civilians, almost exclusively with non-chemical munitions, has in fact been the regime’s tactic of choice. The improved security provided in this way would serve to normalize life for civilians, ease the return of refugees, and—at some point—permit thinking about at least a partial reconstruction of these areas.
The fears of those who inveigh against the return of the neocons are understandable, considering they set the Middle East ablaze at the start of this century. But we must face the fact that, since the second Bush term, the major Western tendency has been one of falling back, if not a definitive exit, from the region. Both are pitfalls that must be rejected. On the one hand, Syria’s north must be protected permanently, hence by a coalition and not simply by a United States whose foreign policy is too unstable. On the other hand, the area must be demilitarized to the greatest extent possible to let a self-administered Syrian society emerge over the long term, in lieu of setting up Turkish or American military bases. From this perspective, a Turkish presence, like that of the United States, could become problematic later, since it opens the possibility of Damascus, Ankara, and Washington concluding an accord over the heads of the Syrian people.
Gilles Dorronsoro is Professor of Political Science at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, a member of the Institut Universitaire de France, and author (with Adam Baczko and Arthur Quesnay) of Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders, Cambridge University Press, 2017.