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This weekend, chemical weapons attack took place in Syria. Presumably, the inhabitants of the suburb of Douma, located east of Damascus (in East Guta), were poisoned by toxic gas chlorine. The settlement is surrounded by the troops of President Bashar Assad. According to preliminary data, 42 people died as a result of the chemical weapons attack. Over 500 Syrians were poisoned. The media publishes photos and videos of medical care to victims, whose eyes and respiratory tract are damaged. Inhabitants of the Douma accuse Assad’s troops of the incident. The UN Security Council decided to hold a meeting concerning the chemical attack in Douma.
British Foreign Office was urged to urgently investigate the circumstances of the incident. London believes that if the fact of using chemical weapons is proven, then, undoubtedly, Assad’s regime did it. Syria could violate the "Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons", which obliges the participating countries to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles and to shut down the capacities for its production. Syria signed and ratified this document in 2013. But in this Middle Eastern country, where civil war has been going on for seven years, the warring parties have repeatedly neglected their international obligations.
There is nothing surprising in that, Assad’s troops tried to stink the Syrian opposition from the suburb of Douma out with the help of chlorine. The use of prohibited weapons in Syria is a common practice. The chemical attack in Douma is not the only incident of this kind. In April 2017, 80 people died as a result of the use of sarin nerve agent by the troops of Assad in Khan Shaykhun. The troops of Assad were accused of using chemical weapons during the siege of Douma and Adra, the Aleppo quarters in 2013-2016. Accusations of using chemical weapons also sounded to other parties to the conflict. Syrian Kurds accused ISIS of using unidentified chemical weapons against them in the vicinity of Al-Hasakah, Syrian opposition – of the use of chlorine. ISIS also used sulfur mustard in Um Hosh in September 2016.
Bashar Assad claims that Syria has abandoned its stockpiles of chemical weapons. In 2013-2015, all inventories and materials for the production of chemical agents declared by the Syrian authorities were removed from the territory of the country and destroyed. However, this is only half the dilemma. In the cities of Al Safira, Latakia, Palmyra, Hama, and Homs, 12 industrial facilities are located; they are capable of producing several hundred different types of chemical weapons, including sarin, mustard, tabun, and VX. They had to be liquidated before the end of June 2015, but international experts did not have time to confirm this because of the outbreak of the hostilities. It is possible that some types of chemical weapons are still produced in Syria.
The use of chemical weapons corresponds to the logic of Bashar Assad, who is trying to win back territories controlled by the opposition. In the suburb of Douma, Assad's troops staged an act of intimidation. Chemical weapons and its negative health consequences may become the basis for the armed formations of the Syrian opposition to voluntarily surrender their positions to the troops of Assad without a fight and stop resistance. Using chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition, Assad operates according to a pattern that was worked out by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 80s. Then Hussein's cousin, Iraqi general Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, was the general secretary of the Northern Bureau of the Ba’ath Party centered in Kirkuk. In 1988, he conducted Anfal Operation, the purpose of which was the physical destruction of Iraqi Kurds, who had some separatist sentiments. During the operation, chemical weapons were used. After the chemical attack on Halabja, 5 thousand people were killed. No wonder Al-Majid was nicknamed "Chemical Ali". Saddam Hussein and "Chemical Ali" were hanged for crimes against humanity.
Situation in the Damascus area as of April 10, 2018
Assad is acting decisively, taking advantage of Russia’s protection. After the defeat of ISIS, the president is gathering the Syrian lands controlled by Syrian Kurds and Islamist opposition groups. This is evidenced by the recent unsuccessful attempt of the Syrian army (with the support of Russian mercenaries) to reclaim oil fields in the Deir-ez-Zor province, as well as a march on Afrin (Syrian Kurdistan), where the Turkish army carried out a military operation against the armed formations of local Kurds. Chemical weapon is an extreme measure for Assad’s troops when the area cannot be seized with the help of the conventional weapons.
Assad framed Putin
Syrian president used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Douma at a very inconvenient time for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The US State Department believes that responsibility for the incident is borne by Russia. Since 2015, the Russian military and space forces, Russian mercenaries and volunteers, as well as Iranian Special Forces, are providing military assistance to Assad’s troops in the civil war in Syria. One gets the impression that Moscow deliberately prevents the deprivation of Damascus from the possibility of using chemical weapons. Last November, Russia blocked the United Nations Security Council draft resolution on the extension of the mandate of the joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate chemical attacks in Syria. The purpose of this mission is to identify all possible cases of the use of chemical weapons during the civil war in Syria and to achieve the destruction of all existing reserves and capacities for its production. President of the United States Donald Trump, in his Sunday post on Twitter, called his Syrian counterpart an animal.
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 8 квітня 2018 р.
Of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia is the only country that has an influence on Assad’s regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian experts allegedly did not find any traces of the use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Douma, and accused the West of an anti-Syrian and anti-Russian campaign. Lavrov continues to bluff. Back in February 2018, he called the US accusations of using chemical weapons by Damascus bogus. In 2013, Lavrov personally negotiated with former US Secretary of State John Kerry on the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons under international control. Four years have passed, and chemical weapons have been used and continue to be used in Syria. Russia not only discredited itself as a guarantor of the non-use of poisonous substances but also appeared in the eyes of the international community as a country that promotes the use and dissemination of illicit weapons. Russia is responsible for the use of chemical weapons by Assad, as it hinders the continuation of the investigation of chemical attacks in Syria under the auspices of the United Nations.
As the Russian leadership contributes to the violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, this means that Kremlin still perceives poisonous substances as an effective weapon. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has emphasized that the United States should pay attention to why chemical weapons are still being used, while the Russian Federation remains the key guarantor for its destruction. The incident in Douma suburbs causes associations with the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal with the help of Novishok nerve agent. Now suspicions of the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western countries regarding the use of chemical weapons by Russia as a weapon of murder will only grow. Assad screwed Putin, using chemical weapons in his country in the midst of an investigation into the incident in Salisbury.
The US and EU position towards Assad’s regime and Russia will be toughened if the results of the investigation confirm Damascus's use of chemical weapons in Douma and the fact that Moscow did not interfere with this. James Mattis does not exclude the possibility of using force against the Assad regime in response to a chemical attack. Thomas Bossert, Trump's Chief Adviser on Homeland Security, admits a missile strike in Syria as a retaliatory measure. In any case, on April 9, a day after the chemical attack, a missile attack was fired at Tiyas Military Airbase, killing 12 people. The US did not assume responsibility for this missile attack. In Syria, this military action was called "American aggression". Iranians suspect Israel of the shelling.
The United States and Israel can carry out a joint air-force operation and destroy the warehouses of Assad’s troops and key military airfields, as well as Syrian facilities on which chemical weapons could be manufactured (using missile and bomb strikes). The Americans had already solved similar problems during Operation Desert Fox (1998), in the first phase of Iraqi Freedom Operation in 2003. The Israelis attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the alleged nuclear reactor in the Syrian province of Deir-Ez-Zor during Orchard Operation in 2007. If Trump previously allowed the US military to leave Syria after the defeat of ISIS, now they will have to stay. The Americans support the Syrian Kurds, who are a potential target of aggression by the Assad troops and the US military-political ally in the Syrian conflict.
The role of Assad in the future development of Syria is questionable. Russia is not interested in his resignation. The US and France have stopped calling for his overthrow, as he is a more predictable alternative to radical extremists, who are really numerous in Syria. However, no one is going to turn a blind eye to Assad's use of chemical weapons and his attempts to return all the territory from the opposition by force, including from the Kurds who are agents of influence of the White House in Syria. If he continues this behavior, then neither Russia nor the West will benefit. For the Kremlin, it is easier to organize a palace coup in Damascus and bring to power more predictable Ba'athist general, who would not use chemical weapons and discredit Russia's international image.
The escalation in Syria is not very profitable for Ukraine, because the recent chemical attack in Douma distracts the attention of the international community from the ongoing aggression of Russia. The shelling in Donbas continues. Instead of returning annexed Crimea to Ukraine, Russia creates opportunities for entering ships of the Black Sea Fleet into the Sea of Azov under the sauce of protecting its fishermen. Russia accused Ukraine of piracy after our border guards arrested the fishing vessel "Nord", registered in Kerch. The crew illegally changed the Ukrainian flag to Russian, took Russian citizenship, left the Crimean port without informing Kyiv. It may happen that during the planned talks between Trump and Putin, the main topic will not be Ukraine, but Syria. And this is Putin's trump card, which he plays in negotiations with the West.
However, it does not change the essence of possible negative consequences for Russia. The US will continue to impose new sanctions against Russian oligarchs and their enterprises on the Kremlin's list, as has already happened with the oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his assets. The United States understands that a constructive dialogue with Putin and Assad is hardly possible because they are preparing tough measures to influence their compliance.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners.