• Rahul Chaudhary

Chemical Carnage in Syria

Syria, mired in civil strife and conflict, faced yet another incidence of violence. Amid reports of chemical attacks, followed by US air strikes and international mudslinging, the international community conducted intense discussions on the future of the regime. There were also reports of attacks on pro-Assad Iranian air bases in Syria. These attacks, allegedly conducted by Israel, drove the country. As the turmoil in the region worsens, here is what you need to know.

The government and rebel groups in Syria are locked a civil war. In February, the government forces besieged Ghouta, in an attempt to gain control over this rebel stronghold, a few miles off of Damascus. Similar anti-rebel operations continued through March and were successful in rooting out rebels from various regions. But the rebel group in Douma, Jaysh al-Islam, retained its position in this region. After covert negotiations during which the Jaysh al-Islam were offered safe passage to leave the region, the Syrain government resumed its air strikes on Douma, on 6th April. This government attack continued till the 7th April, the day on which the reported ‘chemical attacks’ took place.

Two of the bombs that were dropped in the Douma suburb that day were suspected to be chlorine based, which are certified as chemical weapons as per the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons- an international watchdog. Syrian civilians, activists and observers immediately attributed the attack to government forces. The accusations became a matter of heated international debate as the Syrian regime, supported by Iran and Russia, denied the use of such weapons.

The attack left Douma in a state of chaos as many were injured and many others lost their lives. The BBC reported,

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes on 6 and 7 April killed almost 100 people. It said they included 21 who died as a result of suffocation, but that it was unable to identify the cause.”

Following the ‘chemical attacks’ in Syria, the United States in conjunction with France and the UK, launched “precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad” on April 14th. Syria, and its ally Russia, have condemned the air strikes while the west supported the attack as a means of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons.

Syria and Russia have also claimed that 71 out of the 103 missiles were intercepted but the Pentagon (US Dept. of Defense) maintains that none of their strikes were stopped. There were, however, reports that Russia was informed of the airstrikes beforehand to avoid a confrontation in which Russian troops were harmed, and that they passed this information onto the Syrians who were able to secure most of their assets.

Debates around the air strikes have heated up international geopolitics. Donald Trump went further in his rhetoric against Iran and Russia, he asked,

“What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?”

The Syrian army considers the strike “an aggression” and the Russian Ambassador to the US has tweeted that “such actions will not be left without consequences.” The Russian President later went a step further, saying in a statement to the Kremlin,

“[These air strikes] are an act of aggression… [and would] have a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations”.

The Syria-Russia and US-UK-France divide was further complicated due to the lack of clarity on whether the chemical weapons had been used, and if so, by which adversary. The Syrian government has accused the rebels of forging fake reports in order to frame the Assad regime. Russia also alleged that the strike was “staged” by “Russophobic” UK- perhaps UK was singled out because of the countries confrontation on Mr. Skripal, a former Russian agent for the MI6 (the British spy agency), who was poisoned in London recently.

However, USA, UK and France have confirmed the use of chemical weapons and the US was “confident” about the same as of 13th April. With both the sides presenting evidence to prove themselves right, the dispute over the US air strikes and their necessity has certainly boiled up. As the Guardian reported, Russia tried to disprove the allegations of the chemical attack by,

“…transporting 17 Syrian people to Europe to assert that no chemical weapons attack occurred in the town of Douma earlier this month. The supposed witnesses were unveiled by Russia at the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague in an attempt to discredit western claims that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime mounted the chemical attack on 7 April.”

​​Russia’s attempts to refute the use of chemical attacks have evoked outrage among those who oppose the Syrian regime. Considering the fact that Russia and Syria hindered the entry of experts who could verify whether the attack was of chemical nature has made matters worse for Russia and Syria. The power dynamics between the nations involved in this dispute are worth noting. Justin Bronk, Editor of the Rusi Defence Systems, pointed out how the US can easily overpower Russian defense system in Syria. He says,

“...of course, the worry is not whether Russian systems could be overcome or suppressed in Syria, but what the escalation would lead to elsewhere.”

The possibility of USA and Russia being locked in war is not a welcome thought for many around the world. Additionally, Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, an online news magazine, points out how the US bombings are often motivated by geopolitical motives rather than those of preventing humanitarian suffering. He believes that US, in order to gain access to resources in the middle east, wants to ally with the enemies of Bashar Al-Assad and Iran, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The US-Israel vs. Iran-Syria power dynamic has long been thought to be operating in the Middle East. Iran is Syria’s (Bashar Al-Assad’s) ally and has funded many Lebanese and Palestinian groups that operate against Israel. On 9th April, Israel’s jets entered Lebanese airspace and shot missiles targeted at an airbase used by Iranian expeditionary Quds force. Russia and Syria claim to have intercepted some of these Israeli missiles, but the airbase, known as T4, still suffered bombarding. As the Economist reports,

“for decades Israel has fought a shadow war with Iran… In recent months, though, the war has escalated: Israel and Iran have come into direct confrontation on Syrian soil."

Iranian forces have been working to establish strong, permanent bases in Syria to win over Israel. T4 was one such Iranian attempt – to build an air-defense system against Israeli jets – and hence was targeted by Israel.

Russia having ties with both Israel and Iran makes it a somewhat of a stuck monkey among the fighting cats. While Russia has close ties with Israel, the Iran-Russia-Syria (Assad) interests seems to be more pressing for Russia. US’s ties with Israel, considered alongwith Israel’s recent views against Bashar Al-Assad also further a divide amongst the pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces in the region. How the Syrian conflict will come to an end is yet a mystery to many spectators, and as the hostility rises with more international interest – ideological or geopolitical – it is safe to say that the war is far from over.

About The Author

Rahul Chaudhary is a literature student at Hansraj College. He is interested in social work and has worked with multiple NGOs and organizations. Having written for online portals, magazines, blogs and more he is well experienced with handling content. His tenacious interest in social issues and art has allowed him to work with organizations like the World Comics Network, Project FUEL and many other education-awareness projects. Still working for various journals and awareness initiatives, he continues to write on issues close to his heart as he explores the world beyond his comfort zone.

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