The latest round of airstrikes and missiles launches ordered by Theresa May's war cabinet, the Trump administration and President Macron have ended a turbulent week in the Syrian War. The chemical attack in Douma on 7 April, 2017 near Eastern Ghouta is one of three major chemical weapons attacks which have appalled the international community and led to two instances where the Western powers have launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime to deter the use of chemical warfare.
The other major chemical weapon attacks by the regime occurred in Eastern Ghouta on 21 August, 2013 and the other in Khan Shaykhun, Idlib took place on 4 April 2017. Alongside these major attacks, use of the devastating weapons has been prevalent across other parts of the country by regime and opposition forces such as Daesh killing hundreds and wounding thousands. The first chemical attack on record in Syria was in March 2013 in Ghouta with 17 other locations impacted by chemical weapons including sarin, white phosphorus, chlorine and mustard gas. According to Human Rights Watch, Daesh (also known as Islamic State) used mustard and sulphur agents launching at least three chemical attacks on the Iraqi town of Qayyarah in November, 2016 alone while an analysis conducted by IHS Conflict Monitor showed that across Iraq and Syria, the hardline Sunni insurgents have used mustard and sulphur agents over 50 times since 2014.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria's brutal conflict has drawn revulsion from across the international community and the Al-Asad regime has drawn fierce criticism for its deployment of its arsenal multiple times throughout the protracted civil war.
Curbing the development of chemical weapons has been hampered by the secrecy surrounding the WMD programmes of various countries across the region.The 'Lebonisation' of the Syrian conflict has shattered the stability of the Middle East. To quote Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, "the toxic cocktail of indiscriminate war on terror, mutual distrust among ground actors and impunity for war crimes has made the Syrian War the worst collapse of humanitarian law since the genocides of the 1990s."
Out of all the chemical attacks across Syria, the ones which occurred Eastern Ghouta, Khan Shaykhun and Douma are the ones which have gained most notoriety and been most fiercely debated. In Douma, the alleged attack remains under investigation by OPCW and the discussion on social media outlets (if you can call them that) have turned into poisonous smearing and name-calling , and for now the truth has been lost in the information war raging in cyberspace where partisan politics is rife, lobbying is apparent and impartiality and objectivity is difficult to find. This has made for lop-sided and uneven reportage in some areas of the conflict, particularly from outside the country where everyone has an opinion on the Syrian Civil War when a significant atrocity occurs.
Those fighting and involved in the conflict in Syria and outside the country whether pro-Asad, pro-rebel, pro-Kurd, pro-Daesh will have an agenda. Differentiating between journalists, activists, civilians, soldiers and humanitarians has become incredibly blurred in the turbo-charged information age and made worse by the vicious urban violence. This has been compounded by the fact that most international journalists, humanitarians and activists cannot get into certain areas of the country due to the threat of kidnap, imprisonment and potential death. This has led to problems which must be addressed on both sides of the conflict.
"All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter. But this is to let mainstream media off the hook: it’s hardly surprising that in a civil war each side will use whatever means are available to publicise and exaggerate the crimes of the other, while denying or concealing similar actions by their own forces. The real reason that reporting of the Syrian conflict has been so inadequate is that Western news organisations have almost entirely outsourced coverage to the rebel side."
There are brilliant reporters, journalists and humanitarians who have done excellent, spell-binding reporting on the ground in the Syrian Civil War. The likes of James Foley, Patrick Cockburn, Francesca Borri, Janine Di Giovanni, Kim Sengupta, Jeremy Bowen, Quentin Sommerville and beyond have produced dazzling pieces of work on the conflict. This does not even include the hundreds of Syrian journalists determined to report and catalogue the stories, war crimes and conflicts tearing their own country apart, often at great risk to their lives as they navigate the mukhabbarat and rebel factions roaming the country. These voices must not disappear lest impartial, objective reportage on Syria vanish entirely.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group fighting to depose Colonel Qaddafi were our heroes in 2011 when they were ridding the country of the dictator. It is highly the UK public would regard the group as such when one of the organisation's fighters, Salman Abedi a British-Libyan civilian turned jihadist, blew himself up in the Manchester Arena killing 22, mainly children. This group, it has been revealed, were given tacit support by Mi5, British intelligence.
Why does this matter in regards to the chemical attacks? Perhaps it doesn't. The Libyan and Syrian wars are different as were those in Iraq, El-Salvador, Gaza, Yemen, Somalia, Mexico, Rwanda and Afghanistan. The Syrian regime based on its stockpile of weaponry, it use of certain types of chemical weapons (which the rebels do not have) and its historic development of chemical weapons make it a very certain culprit. However, demonstrated in a previous piece, Jaysh al-Islam - heavily involved in the lead-up to the chemical attack - are heroes to some Syrian civilians but villains to others involved (and not all of those who regard the group as hostile are all pro-Asad). The Libyan case demonstrates that while events are happening, how they are assessed in real-time will sometimes be very different to how we analyse them later. So as long as history is written, this will go on forever.
JAYSH AL-ISLAM: 'MODERATE' REBELS?
Extremists groups like Daesh have utilised the chemicals weapons, howeverJaysh al-Islam, at the centre of the recent Douma attack, have been accused of using mustard agent in the past by Reuters. Despite heavy fighting with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Daesh, the self-labelled 'mujaheddin' paramilitary sponsored by the Saudis are not a moderate faction in the Syrian War. Lebanon, and Egypt have classified Jaysh al-Islam as a terrorist group and the organisation have been accused of executing POWs.
A particular shocking incident in Eastern Ghouta in October and November 2015 threw the group into disrepute.The incident came after a particularly murderous raid by the regime on Douma's marketplace. The raid, according to Doctors Without Borders, killed at-least 70 people and wounded 550 injured. In response to deter further shelling, Jaysh al-Islam paraded men, women and children including several officers and soldiers from the Syrian military in cages. The majority of them were from the Alawi sect. The video showing this incident was posted to Youtube by the Shaam News Network (a rebel news outlet) showing trucks driving around with men and women in cages. The following text accompanied the video: “Rebels in Ghouta have distributed 100 cages, with each cage containing approximated seven people and the plan is afoot to produce 1,000 cages to distribute in Eastern Ghouta … in different parts of Douma city, particularly in public places and markets that have been attacked in the past by the regime and the Russian air force,”
The 'publicity stunt drew wide criticism both inside and outside of Eastern Ghouta for the use of civilians as human shields' and contradicted the former military commander of the Islamic Front and leader of Jaish al-Islam, Zahran Alloush statement to Western and Arab media outlets that sectarianism did not drive the groups politics. In an interview, he states: "We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represent the diversity of the Syrian people." This differs strongly to Alloush's statements to his supporters (published by the Washington Institute) his supporters which demonstrates his overt sectarianism and that the commander was speaking to different audiences in different languages for different purposes. In 2013, Alloush stated:
"The mujahidin of al-Sham will wash the filth of the rafidha and the rafidha from al-Sham, they will wash it forever, if God wills it, until they cleanse Bilad al-Sham from the filth of the majus who have fought the religion of God. So go oh mujahidin to support your brethren, go to support your brethren, we, in Liwa al-Islam [former name of Jaish al-Islam], welcome the mujahidin from all over the world to be an aid and support for us, to fight in our ranks, the rank of sunna [traditions of Mohammad], the sunna of the messenger of God, which raise the banner of tawhid [pure monotheism] high, until the humiliation and destruction is upon the majus, the enemies of Allah."
The term 'rafidha' used by , 'is a reference to Twelver Shiites, the largest of the Shiite sects and...has been used in mainstream Saudi religious discourse as well as education.' It is sectarian language aimed at the Alawi minority and the incarcerating men, women and children in cages was an action which would not endear Jaysh al-Islam to the Alawi minority in Syria. Aside from his Hello Kitty notebook, there was little that was moderate about former rebel commander.
Alloush was also accused of warlordism as intra-jihadist fighting continued to hamper their efforts to fight the regime and there were even protests against Jaysh Al-Islam. The rebels in Eastern Ghouta, and the people living under them were divided. There are parallels to the conduct of the Islamist rebels in Aleppo, where Italian journalist Francesca Borri watched civilians grow weary with both sides, and grew angry with foreign fighters and Saudi and Qatari sponsored rebels seize local resources, food and power for themselves.
Alloush was eventually killed in a Russian airstrike on Christmas Day, 2015, and since then intra-jihadist fighting and sectarianism has continued to hampered the group's efforts to overthrow the regime. Differentiating 'moderate' from 'extremist' groups has been hotly debated by mainstream and partisan media. In the district of al-Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo, one of Jaysh al-Islam's commanders were purportedly accused of utilising chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. In a statement, the group stated that “During the clashes one of the Jaysh al-Islam brigade leaders used [weapons] forbidden in this kind of confrontations...this situation is contrary to the charter of Jaysh al-Islam,”
According to The Daily Beast, 'Jaysh al-Islam later clarified that it was referring to “modified Grad rockets,” not chemical weapons. The chemical weapons allegations and the mistaken claim that Jaysh al-Islam admitted to their use have been circulated widely in Kurdish media' whose civilians were being targeted indiscriminately by conventional weapons, in this case, improvised Hell Canons. “Unfortunately, none of these [videos] are conclusive,” Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer with 25 years of experience in chemical defense issues told the magazine, debunking Jaysh al-Islam's role in the chemical weapon attack.
The group are accused of sectarianism and targeting civilians. Speaking to the Daily Beast in 2016 in the wake of the shelling of shelling al-Sheikh Maqsoud Hadeel al-Shalchi, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch condemned Jaysh al-Islam's actions. “International law does not just prohibit targeting civilians. It prohibits indiscriminate attacks, those that do not or cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians. This can be when attacks are not directed at a military objective or when the weapons or their particular use are inherently indiscriminate, as in many cases of shelling of populated areas,” she told The Daily Beast.
In April 2018, as the world was focused on the horrific images and videos streaming from Douma, The Times published an article written by Hannah Lucinda Smith, 'Islamists sabotaged Douma evacuation'
'The Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), a band of Damascus-based extremist rebels, refused to hand over heavy weapons, a key element of an evacuation deal that would have resulted in elderly residents staying in their homes and young men of fighting age walking free...Akram Tomeh, deputy prime minister of the Syrian opposition, told The Times: “We all agreed that the young men should leave and the elderly could stay. We asked for the safety of the men and that they will not be conscripted [into the regime army] before one year, and for guarantees that the area won’t get looted. We lost everything as the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam) had taken another decision after the deal was almost agreed on. Their stubbornness is what let things happen this way.”
According to Smith, 'The failed evacuation deal had been brokered by Syria’s political opposition and Russia through a German intermediary. The estimated 35,000 people, including 3,000 rebel fighters, still in Douma have been given 48 hours to leave. Within days of the talks collapsing, the residents of Douma suffered a chemical attack killing at least 70 people, many of them children.' The catalyst for the chemical attack the result of a deal, however temporary, gone horribly sour because Jaysh Al-Islam refused to hand over its heavy weapons before their departure from the city. These weapons, photographed by the Syrian Arab News Agency on 11th April, included a large number of RPGs, missiles and rifles.
At worst, conspiracy theorists have argued that Jaysh al-Islam conducted the attack themselves using chemical weapons in a last ditch attempt to spark an international intervention. At best the chemical attacks demonstrate the incompetence of Jaysh al-Islam in managing the negotiations with the regime, an act of defiance which cost lives. The fighters and their families have left for Idlib and their decisions, current and past, have agitated the regime enough to collectively punish the population with bombs, chemical weapons and bullets. Dreadful miscalculations on one side and overextension on the other have led to this particularly atrocity and the chemical attack was the catalyst for limited airstrikes.
The West's cries of indignation should draw scepticism. The use of cluster bombs and phosphorus should draw equal revulsion. The U.S military utilised the substance in the battle of Fallujah in 2004. While United States is not a signatory to the Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas, its use drew condemnation.
The Iraqi military and U.S-led coalition used it in Mosul during the siege of the city and in September, 2016, the Saudi Arabian army, according to The Washington Post and The Independent, appeared to be using phosphorus munitions in its war in Yemen. "Images on pro-Saudi Twitter and Instagram accounts show that Saudi forces are using several systems for firing white phosphorous munitions, including tank rounds, mortars, howitzers and rifle grenades." explains Thomas Gibbons Neff, "It is being used near the Saudi-Yemen border -- in Najran province -- and around the Yemeni capital, Sanaa." The Israelis utilised the horrifying weapons in Gaza in the devastating military operation of 2008-2009, 'Cast Lead'. If the Western powers cannot abide by the laws created by the international community, how can they expect its enemies to do the same?
A HORRIFYING REGIME
The probability of the regime deploying the weapons (again) is extremely high, if not certain. Chemical weapons aside, the punishment meted out on Douma and Eastern Ghouta has been truly barbarous. The Sunni enclave has been shelled mercilessly, starved, targeted with chemical weapons, and activists and fighters have been tortured in regime hospitals and prisons. The evidence of President Al-Asad's cruelty, whether he used chemical weapons or not, should not be in doubt. By siege, torture, starvation and brutal bombings, Al-Asad mauled Syria. Chemical weapons only added to the terrors already unleashed by the regime's conventional warfare and counterinsurgency tactics.
Saddam Hussein - armed and funded by the United States, France and Britain in the Iran-Iraq War - blamed the Iranians for the worst chemical attack in history. According to The New York Times, the U.S. State Department, in the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack, also said Iran was partly to blame for the attack. As Joost Hiltermann wrote 'interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, show (1) that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and (2) that the United States, fully aware it was Iraq, accused Iran, Iraq's enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack. The State Department instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame.'
The hypocrisy of the Western leaders in regards to their conduct to in the Syria and how it hushed up Saddam's crimes are clear. However it did not come without cost. Saddam returned to haunt Western policymakers in the 1990s and 2000s, destabilised the Middle East and the Iraq War (launched to dislodge Saddam) has scarred the notion of liberal interventionism. Russians policymakers will come to regret supporting Bashar's clique in the short-term and long-term.
Saddam Hussein made terrible decisions, including taking the decision to invade Iran in 1980 and then invaded Kuwait in 1991 so it wouldn't go so far to presume that 'just because a poison gas attack at this stage (the stage of victory in Eastern Ghouta) would be an extremely stupid thing for the Syrian government to do, (it) does not mean that they did not do it.' Given the brutal record of the Russian military under President Putin in Chechnya, it seems highly probable that, like Washington in the 1980s, the Kremlin is spreading disinformation to protect a client and in-turn their assets in Syria. Neither the United States nor Russia top-brass are in this fight primarily for human rights, nor - in-particular - are regional actors such as Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.
THE AIRSTRIKES: STRONG RHETORIC, LIMITED ACTION
The United Kingdom, France, the United States and Israel's airstrikes have risked open confrontation with the Russian military, Iran, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime based upon murky motives and hampered by the fog of war. With disinformation rampant, partisan politics evident and propaganda everywhere, decision making becomes more difficult. The airstrikes and missiles which hit Damascus and Homs and the regime's remaining chemical facilities will have little effect on the outcome of the war unless British, American and French soldiers, not including special forces already deployed, invade Syria and Russia and Iran abandon its barbarous ally. That scenario, for now, is highly unlikely as President Trump will not want to risk an international conflict with Russia and ignite a war with Iran nor will Tehran and Moscow wish to relinquish their grip on Syria where they have emerged as bloodied victors.
Previous interventions in the Middle East have haunted policymakers and politicians. As Mark Leonard's wrote in Reuters in 2014, 'in today’s world, “exceptions have become the rule.” The foreign policy order has been exhausted by Kosovo, Iraq and Crimea.' Major Western interventions in Libya and Yemen sent the countries into meltdown as was the case with Iraq in 2003. NATO support for the Libyan rebels against Qaddafi and its military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have decimated both countries. Libya is in anarchy. Yemen is starving and in Afghanistan seventy percent of the country is, according to a BBC study published in January, controlled by the Taliban, who were initially ejected from power by the Northern Alliance and an international coalition spearheaded by the United States in 2001. The West's military engagement with the Greater Middle East is a well-recorded disaster and the Russians and Chinese have been fast to exploit this to their own advantage and to pursue their own agendas.
Each conflict has its own nuances and context. The Syrian regime has been ultra-violent, killing far more than Qaddafi in Libya, the Saudi-coalition in Yemen and several times over the amount of Israelis have killed Palestinians in a century-old conflict. The misery inflicted by the Israelis, Saudis, and pro-Qaddafi loyalists pale in comparison to the terror unleashed by President Al-Asad. Nonetheless, journalists, academics, analysts and international audiences across the spectrum (not just the far-left and far-right) have highlighted the flawed narratives promoted by the French, British, Israeli, Saudi, Turkish and American governments and other Gulf monarchies in their pursuit of regime change. Like their counter-parts, the Iranians, Hizbullah, Russians, anti-Western, and pro-regime loyalists have been spreading propaganda and flawed narratives in pursuit of deterring Western-led involvement.
The situation is dangerous but not critical yet. Israel, Iran, Lebanon and Syria's historical rivalries have fused with the Syrian War, the latter of which has created new conflicts, reopened old tensions and enflamed regional rivalries - particularly the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This has created a dangerous situation, particularly in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli-Iranian proxy conflict. In parallel to this, the United States and Russia are rubbing shoulders, posturing, engaged in a war of words and their proxies are fighting each other.
President Trump understands little about the dynamics of the region, nor did the last Republican candidate and president George W. Bush. The appointments of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Adviser have created causes for concern in the context of Middle Eastern politics. John Bolton, part of the Project for the New American Century, has been a staunch advocate of regime change in Iran and North Korea, and had no regrets over the deposing of Saddam Hussein, an act which led to deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, plunged the country into civil war and deeply polarised U.S politics.
Furthermore, Bolton published a deeply troubling article calling for the creation of 'Sunnistan' in eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. Not only does it highlight Bolton's utter lack of knowledge about the Middle East, if not the Islamic world, his words echo those of François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes who carved the Middle East into artificial statelets, a result which tampered with the delicate tribal, ethnic, religious, national and cultural balances of the region already suffering under the Ottomans. Reverting to and maintaining the crumbling status quo of pro-Western dictators and monarchs will not work in the new Middle East and reanimating a zombified Middle Eastern policy will not cure the Middle East's current ills nor will do little to prevent the region's Thirty Years' War from getting worse. To the contrary, it will fan the flames of conflict with many, including the Israelis, adamant that the United States and European allies are getting Daesh and the conflicts in the region wrong. “If Al-Asad wins,” one IDF official in the Golan Heights told Bryan Bender for Politico Magazine, “we will have Hezbollah on two borders not one. If I can be frank, the radical axis headed by Iran is more risky than the global jihad one. It is much more knowledgeable, stronger, with a bigger arsenal.”
Nevertheless, despite the ominous predicament and alarmist assessments by analysts and policymakers, it does not mean regional war is inevitable. Careful diplomacy and "rules of the game" must be (re)established including military deterrents to prevent such a confrontation from occurring and safeguarding the interests of Israel and Iran. All the countries involved, including international powers, have little to gain from an international war from breaking out in the Middle East. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands - military and civilians - would perish if a $18 billion plus arms race reaches a potential devastating climax and if Syria, Russia and the United States' war of words and involvement in the conflict goes wrong. Airstrikes may reestablish the 'red-line', deter future use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and spare the West's blushes for not acting sooner to solve the conflict but ultimately this limited action will not end the Syrian War.
The consequences of the proliferation of chemical weapons are profound. In a region of collapsed states, civil wars and revolution where borders are porous and unstable, the spread of poisonous stockpiles present grave security concerns for global and regional intelligence networks and significant headaches for policymakers aiming to curb the use of such weapons. The ever-growing strength of non-state actors, the emergence of insurgents, militias and terrorist organisations such as Daesh and their ability to mutate compounds this threat, and the inability of superpowers and bodies such as the United Nations to enforce international law and punish ally and foe alike for utilising chemical, biological and banned conventional weapons of war have normalised the exception.
President Al-Asad did not set the precedent for chemical warfare in the Middle East. The red-line was first crossed by Nasser in the 1960s, tested by "Mad Dog" Qaddafi and crossed repeatedly by Saddam which the administrations of President Reagan, President Bush and CIA were willing to turn a blind-eye to in the pursuit of containing Iran in the 1980s and early 1990s. All instances are a scandal of astonishing proportions and the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria should frighten the world.
The Syrian regime has killed hundreds of thousands of its own civilians with conventional weapons. However, whether a small percentage were killed with chemical weapons should not matter. The recent airstrikes on Syria must reset the standards lost in the multigenerational conflict consuming the Middle East.
This was lost when Nasser and Saddam used them with impunity in the 1960s and 1980s. Reestablishing a so-called 'red-line' and the fierce scrutiny chemical and nuclear weapons (in the case of North Korea) are currently under is a blessing for the international community. The abhorrent nature of these weapons and the capacity of the horrors they could potentially unleash a level of military conflict so barbaric it is scarcely imaginable to the majority of us.
Certain weapons, their use and, most importantly, their development must be universally condemned. Whatever the truth of the chemical weapons saga in the Syrian War, that the Israelis, Libyans, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and Iranians even began developing them should be of serious concern to the international community. The use of chemical weapons in the Middle East is as much a failure of politics in the region over the last century as it is a failure of humanity and regulating the laws of war. The Syrian people are bearing the brunt of these catastrophic failures.
Matthew C.K Williams