The April 4 chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria has further complicated the conflict in war-ravaged West Asian nation.
The incident prompted the US to fire 59 “Tomahawk” cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase in Syria on April 7, with President Donald Trump saying that the crime must not go unpunished and international justice would rule on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president justified America’s action by saying that the horror of gas attack altered his attitude towards Assad. Although some of America’s Western allies joined the chorus and blasted the Assad regime for the tragedy, Britain and France felt uneasy. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned Washington not to rush into a confrontation against the Syrian government, saying that the top priority should be complementary peace talks and passing a UN resolution to investigate last Tuesday’s attack in Idlib. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed the same view, insisting: “(The first stage) is not to go in ourselves, under the pretext that the US president may have a rush of blood to the head, and get onto a war footing.”
Meanwhile, Russia denounced American “aggression” in Syria and called for immediate UN Security Council (UNSC) talks on Idlib ‘chemical attack’, saying that Washington might have to face ‘negative consequences’ in the coming days.
Soon after the US attacked the Syrian airbase, head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said in Moscow that any US-Russian anti-terror coalition has been “put to rest without even being born”. Speaking at a press conference, he also said: “While Russian cruise missiles strike the terrorists, US missiles strike Syrian government forces, who are spearheading the fight against the terrorists.”
Kosachev further backed President Assad against the global “gas attack” outcry, stressing that the Syrian president should not be blamed for the poison gas attack. He claimed that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian bombs.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the US missile strike seriously damaged ties between Washington and Moscow and President Putin considered the US action as “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext”.
At the same time, Peskov made clear that “the Russian support for Assad is not unconditional”. “Unconditional support is not possible in this current world. It is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong. Moscow and Damascus enjoy a relationship of co-operation, of exchange of views and full mutual support,” he told the press. According to Peskov, Kremlin considers Assad and his Army “the only real power in Syria that can resist terrorists on the ground”.
Iran, too, enounced the US strike, saying in a statement that it was “dangerous, destructive and violation of international laws” to use chemical weapons as an excuse for unilateral action.
Although the international community is yet to know the actual fact, the American missile strikes on Shayrat airbase have certainly raised some troubling questions for the international system. Many foreign policy experts opine that the first direct US assault on the Assad government in six years of civil war will create troubles for President Trump in near future. Trump surprised experts with his order – a step his predecessor Barrack Obama never took – to directly target Assad’s military with air strikes in punishment for the chemical weapons attack. The president gave the order, despite knowing the fact that it is difficult to prove that sarin, a deadly nerve agent, was used in the chemical attack in Syria. Investigators need soil, blood or hair samples from the area of the attack or its victims to establish sarin exposure. Only initial evidence says that the gas was used.
Sarin is basically a man-made “odourless, tasteless and colourless” gas developed during the WWII. The liquid sarin vaporises quickly into gas, spreads and breaks down after release, but minuscule amounts can persist in victims’ blood for 16-26 days. Inhalation of sarin through the skin can cause death within 5-10 minutes of exposure.
Scientists explain that our nervous system relies on transmission of signals through nerve junctions, called synapses. And when electric impulse triggers the release of chemical neurotransmitter “acetylcholine” (ACh), the enzyme breaks ACh down to free up receptor site and so increases ACh level at receptor, preventing over-stimulation. As ACh attaches to receptor molecule, the receptor continually fires off impulses and the victim rapidly loses control of vital functions. The gas kills by crippling the respiratory centre of the central nervous system and paralysing the muscles around the lungs.
World Health Organisation says that sarin is 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas and a pinprick-sized droplet can kill a person. Inhalation of about 200 milligrams of sarin may cause death “within a couple of minutes”, with no time even for symptoms to develop. Even when it does not kill, sarin’s effect can damage a victim’s lungs, eyes and central nervous system. Heavier than the air, the gas linger in an area for up to six hours.
Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of Syrian civil war, with the UN blaming three attacks on the Assad government and a fourth on the Islamic State outfit. In March 2013, the Syrian government and the opposition traded accusations over a gas attack that killed around 26 people in northern part of the country. Later, a UN probe said that sarin nerve gas was used. But, the probe did not identify the culprit. In August 2013, hundreds of people were suffocated to death in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus and the UN investigators said that ground-to-ground missiles, loaded with sarin, were fired on civilian areas while residents slept. At that time, America blamed the Syrian government.
In August 2015, the UNSC authorised investigators to probe reports of chemical weapons use in Syria amid reports of chlorine gas attacks by government forces against civilians in areas held by the opposition. Investigators said in August 2016 that the Syrian government had twice used choppers to deploy chlorine gas. A later report blamed the government for another attack occurred in 2014 and 2015. The probe also found that the Islamic State group had used mustard gas.
On April 4, 2017, at least 86 people, including 27 children, were killed in what doctors said could be a nerve gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held province of Idlib. There is no denying that the images of Syrian chemical attack victims were gut wrenching and the entire world condemned the attack almost immediately. But unfortunately, the use of chemical agents in war has not been rare. The US itself used the destructive chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and its effects are still suffered by three generations of Vietnamese.
President Trump might have made a mistake by taking military action in Syria before allowing the global community to know the actual fact. Former Indian Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey M K Bhadrakumar has said that the US attack in Syria settles nothing and will strengthen Islamic State.
The American missile strikes on Syria without the Congress’ approval has not only signalled a return to Washington’s traditional foreign policy, but also put US-Russia ties at risk. Perhaps, President Trump has failed to realise that US strikes could further complicate the Syrian conflict. His cautious predecessor Obama once said: “Our priority is to go after the Islamic State. And so what we have said is that we are not engaging in a military action against the Syrian regime.” It is expected that Obama’s successor will not follow his path, especially given the highly personalised and mercurial nature of President Trump’s policy-making. The Trump administration has made clear that it will no longer remain aloof as the Syrian war seemed to be headed towards an Assad victory (with Russian and Iranian support). While the overthrow of the Islamic State remains the number one US strategic goal (at least officially), the fact that the terrorist outfit as a territorial entity is now clearly on its last legs means more traditional geopolitical considerations are beginning to surface in the American policy calculations. That is why President Trump is showing “prepared to do more” attitude.