April 7, 2018…. The Western media reported that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria carried out a fresh chemical attack in the Damascus suburb’s Douma district (in Eastern Ghouta). The West claimed that the attack left at least 70 civilians dead. An organisation of doctors released a video and issued a statement, saying that at least 500 people were in serious condition, as the regime forces used poison gas. The organisation also informed the press that the symptoms of chemical poisoning were found in patients who were admitted to the local hospitals. Even, the local residents claimed that the Syrian forces used chlorine gas during the attack. According to another organisation, the regime used barrel bombs in the chemical attack on Douma.
A cylinder allegedly loaded with a poison gas
The Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the US and the Western countries blasted the Syrian government and President al-Assad for using poison gas to kill innocent civilians. However, the president denied the allegation. His friend Russia, too, said that there was no chemical attack in Douma. Both Damascus and Moscow strongly criticised the West for publishing fake news and videos (only to create troubles for the al-Assad administration). A team of Russian observers, which visited the site, confirmed that it found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in the formerly rebel-held town.
After the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, US President Donald Trump said that there would be a “big price to pay”. Soon after President Trump condemned the attack, the American, French and British forces conducted a joint airstrike in Eastern Ghouta. In a statement, Washington, Paris and London said that their main aim was to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. While Moscow slammed the US, France and Britain for conducting the April 9 airstrike in the war-ravaged West Asian nation, the British envoy to the UN said that the airstrike was necessary to reduce the risk of chemical attacks on Syrian people.
Chemical attack is not ‘new’ in Syria. Both the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) claimed that they had evidences of chemical attacks in Syria in the past. In its latest report, the Human Rights Watch has mentioned that chemical weapons have been used at least 85 times in Syria since 2013. The Arms Control Association has reportedly said that two chlorine gas attacks took place in Douma on March 7 and 11.
An anti-Assad militant group had taken control of the city in April 2013. The Syrian Arab Army (the regime forces) launched attacks on the militants in three cities in Eastern Ghouta and forced them to leave two cities in the last week of March 2018. However, Douma was still controlled by the militants. The Syrian government asked the ‘Jaysh al-Islam’ militant outfit to leave Douma by March 31. Although the group (initially) ignored the instruction, they left the city only after the alleged chemical weapons attack on April 7.
The Syrian and Russian governments requested the OPCW to investigate the incident on April 10. The OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus on April 14…… But, the Syrian and Russian governments didn’t allow them to visit Douma, saying that they could not make security arrangements for the inspectors. Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog came under small arms fire upon their arrival in Douma on April 17 (to examine the site of a suspected gas attack). Finally, the team visited the site on April 21 and 25, and collected samples. The anti-Assad groups have claimed that Russia joined hands with the Syrian government to destroy evidences of chemical attack in Douma.
The alleged ‘chemical attack’ in Douma and the counterclaim made by Damascus and Moscow are parts of a complex diplomatic crisis. Syria will soon be a militancy-free nation, although rebels still have their bases and influence in some areas. President al-Assad recently expressed hope that his forces would soon take control of the entire nation by defeating the militants. Some political experts believe that the main aim of the April 7 chemical attack was to achieve that goal. The Syrian president was fully prepared for the US airstrike (after the alleged chemical attack). So, the US airstrike failed to damage his confidence. Although the US, France and Britain claimed that they destroyed the Syrian chemical weapons, experts expressed doubt over the claim. No one can guarantee that the Syrian forces would not launch chemical attack again. We should not forget that President al-Assad’s military strength is huge and he also has some good ‘friends’, like Iran and Russia.
On the other hand, President Trump has consistently advocated staying out of Syria. However, top officials of the Trump administration have a different view. In a joint statement, Commander of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel and former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett H McGurk recently said: “It is not too late to do some good in Syria. The long struggle to defeat the ISIS is not yet finished. The hard part, I think, is in front of us.” In January, former US Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson stressed: “We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria. The ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”
Diplomatically, it’s not possible for the US to stay out of Syria. In that case, Iran will increase its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel will never allow the US to leave Syria (and help Iran indirectly). Even Russia can also take advantage of the situation, if the US makes such a move.
President Trump has already changed the political equation in West Asia by taking America out of the Iranian nuclear deal (with P+5 signed in 2015). Soon after he made an announcement in this regard on May 8, Iran fired 20 rockets at Israeli military positions in occupied Golan Heights. Israel, too, retaliated with extensive strikes, targeting the Iranian forces across Syria. While Germany and France urged Iran not to launch attacks on the Israeli forces again, Russia asked both Iran and Israel to show restraint.
At the moment, the future of West Asia (especially Syria) depends on Iran. Tehran has enough influence in the region. The top Iranian political leadership considers President al-Assad as a ‘friend’. Iran also maintains cordial ties with the ‘majority’ Shia community in neighbouring Iraq, anti-government militant outfits in Yemen and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. So, we can easily predict what will happen, if Iran loses patience. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal has created an opportunity for hardliners to make a comeback in Iranian politics. So, Iran may lose patience at any time.
The Syrian president, too, is worried about the Iran-Israel rivalry. al-Assad has managed to restore peace in southern part of Syria. He is depending on Russia and Iran to make this region militant-free. Now, if Iran manages to increase its influence in Syria, then Israel will cross the Golan Heights and launch fresh attacks on the war-ravaged country. And the president doesn’t want to get involved in a war with Israel.
As far as the northern part of Syria is concerned, the condition of Idlib (59km southwest of Aleppo) is worrisome, as the militants are still very much active there. One of active militant outfits in Idlib is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (also known as al-Qaeda in Syria). Both Syria and Russia want to destroy this Salafist militant group involved in the Civil War. As the population of Idlib is nearly two million, there will be a humanitarian crisis in case of a war between the Syrian forces and the Hay’at militants. Currently, a battle is going on between the militants and the Kurds in Idlib. If al-Assad wants to take control of the region, then he will have to declare a war against the Kurds as well. So far, he has tried to avoid a war against the Kurds. Even, the Kurds are not ready to attack the Syrian forces. Moreover, Russia is holding talks with Turkey in an attempt to restore peace in Idlib.
As the uncertainty increases, the game of diplomacy becomes more complex. It’s difficult to match the equations (or interests) of so many countries. It will never be possible! No one knows the consequences. It’s also difficult to predict who will win the game – war or diplomacy? But, one thing is for sure…….. Syrians will be the ultimate losers.
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