A Likely Story

In late June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report on the April 4, 2017, nerve gas attack on the central Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, a civilian area under rebel control in which there was no fighting at the time. An estimated one hundred people died; another two hundred suffered from acute exposure to the gas. The OPCW’s report persuasively showed that the agent used in the attack was sarin. The investigators, who did not have access to the site, could not determine the method by which it was dispersed, but they concluded that “the exposure was likely initiated from a release in the vicinity of a crater in the road, located close to the silos in the northern part of town,” where eyewitnesses said a plane had dropped a bomb.

The OPCW’s fact-finding mission was established in a mandate by the UN Security Council that specifically limited its scope to “not include the task of attributing responsibility for the alleged use [of chemical weapons].” But nevertheless the report implicitly blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is the only participant in the Syrian conflict capable of carrying out a nerve gas attack by air.

Assad’s most powerful international supporter has been Russia, which sent its forces into Syria in September 2015 to bolster his struggling regime. Within hours of the attack, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that there had been a Syrian air force strike on Khan Sheikhoun, but claimed that it had taken place later in the day, in a different part of town, and targeted a facility in which rebels manufactured and stored shells containing toxic gas for use in Iraq. According to the Russian account, the explosion released these gases into the air, with lethal effect.

Russia is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and has largely eliminated its own chemical stockpiles. It has no obvious interest in the proliferation of chemical weapons, and supported the OPCW’s earlier effort to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical stockpile following a sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013 that killed hundreds. The Russian government therefore, to avoid embarrassment, desperately needed an alternative explanation for the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, particularly since it must have known that the Syrian government was responsible: Russian military advisers were stationed on the airbase from which the plane carrying the chemical weapons had taken off.

The story the Russians came up with, however, makes no sense. Even if a facility like the one they described existed, it would not have stored sarin itself but rather its chemical components, which are combined only when loaded into a munition. An air strike on such a facility would not have released sarin gas but destroyed its component chemicals. Still, the story soon found Western backers. These included nominal Trump supporters with an affinity for conspiracy theories … .

Read the full article at The New York Review of Books.

Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran

Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which is also in conflict with the Turkish state—another US ally.  In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq. 

Read the full article at The New York Review of Books or in PDF format here.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.