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The Syrian Chemical Attack and Trump’s Response

by Gordon M. Hahn

Last week news broke that the regime of Bashar Assad had carried out a chemical weapons bombing attack killing at least 72 civilians, many of them children. Media was plastered with photographs of children and infants recently in their death throes. In response, US President Donald Trump authorized the bombing of airfields in Syria from which the chemical attack sorties allegedly originated. U.S. forces unleashed 50 cruise missiles on the Syrian air force base at Sheyrat. There are several problems with this version of events.

First, US President Donald Trump has shot before he looked likely for domestic political reasons. Second, he did so without any hard evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad had ordered and his air forces carried out what looks like a chemical attack. Third, it is very possible though not necessarily likely that the evidence will show that others than Assad saw to the dispersal of the deadly sarin gas in Idlib, a jihadist, indeed Al Qa`ida hotbed.

Trump’s Miscalculus

Trump has responded in haste apparently for domestic political reasons rather than for sound foreign policy reasons. He likely acted in order to pre-empt charges he was soft on Syria’s Bashar Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Regarding Syria, he did not want to fall into the same trap that his immediate predecessor did when he drew a red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons and then did nothing after claiming Assad had crossed that line. Regarding Russia, given the anti-Russian wave sweeping Washington and the US media’s strategic communications Trump needs to appear to be tougher on Moscow. By hitting Syria, Russia’s ally in the civil war, Trump hits Putin, something for which there is bipartisan support. The political capitol won by assuaging the liberal and leftists humanitarian interventionists can help Trump undermine the Democratic Party’s opposition and the anti-establishment, while that won by playing to the anti-Russian hawks dominant in almost all factions of the Republican Party allows him to shore up his base for upcoming battles in Congress.

The Evidence Gap

In terms of foreign policy, Trump’s move is hasty to say the least. He attacked Syria very likely on a hunch, before there was sufficient classified evidence and certainly before there was any publicly disclosed evidence that Assad’s forces carried out the chemical attack. The key relevant International organizations are still investigating the forensics of the attack to determine the substance used and who the perpetrator might have been. Two days before Trump dispatched the 59 cruise missiles international organizations were at a loss when it came to citing any evidence that Assad had ordered a chemical attack. European Union High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the joint press point with the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura stated: “(W)e also do not have any evidence at the moment” (https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/24160/remarks-federica-mogherini-united-nations-special-envoy-syria-mr-staffan-de-mistura_en). For his part, Mistura said: We have not yet any official or reliable confirmation, what we have understood it was a chemical attack and it came from the air, we will be stimulating those who have the capacity of finding out technically what happened. OPCW is an obvious candidate for doing so…” (www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/%28httpPages%29/F867A800B9BAB5B3C12580F9002B6F05?OpenDocument). The OPCW stated: “The OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission (FFM) is in the process of gathering and analysing information from all available sources. The FFM will report its findings to the OPCW’s Executive Council and States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention” (https://www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-press-release-on-allegations-of-chemical-weapons-use-in-southern-idlib-syria/). The OPCW has not yet reported any findings on the April 3rd chemical dispersion. The lack of evidence is problematic since it is possible that Assad did not instigate the chemical attack.

Chems and Jihadis in Syria

There is considerable evidence that rebels in Syria have both acquired and deployed chemical agents from Bashar al-Assad’s stockpiles and that groups like Al Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and some of their affiliates in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere are endeavoring to develop and deploy chemical and other Weapons of mass destruction mass-casualty means. On 30 May 2013, Turkish authorities arrested a JaN fighters in possession of about two kilos of sarin nerve gas, but no information has been made public about their nationalities (Karen Hodgson, “Reports claim Al Nusrah Front members in Turkey were planning sarin gas attacks,” Long War Journal, 31 May 2013, www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2013/05/on_may_30_the_turkish.php). Days later, on June 1, Iraqi officials announced that they interdicted an AQ cell plotting to launch sarin gas attacks in Iraq, Europe and possibly North America (Thomas Jocelyn, “Crisis in Syria: Implications for Homeland Security,” Testimony of Thomas Joscelyn (Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Senior Editor, The Long War Journal) Before the House Committee on Homeland Security, United States Congress, September 10, 2013, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM00/20130910/101297/HHRG-113-HM00-Wstate-JoscelynT-20130910.pdf). In the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the Assad regime in Ghouta, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that CIA analysts reported to the Obama administration in the spring of 2013 that Syrian rebels may well have acquired some of Assad’s stockpiles of chemical agents. Hersh’s investigation notes that U.S. intelligence forces not only informed the Obama administration that jihaidsts might have acquired some of Assad’s chemical weapons but that that fact could have meant that jihadists and not Assad had perpetrated the Gouta attack (Seymour M. Hersh, “Whose Sarin,” London Review of Books, Volume 34, Number 24, 13 December 2013, www.lrb.co.uk/2013/12/08/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin). Certainly, with the chaos of an ongoing civil war in Syria and the more than 40 sites at which Assad’s chemical weapons were reported to have been located before Russia negotiated and implemented their removal in cooperation with the U.S, it is possible that one or more jihadi groups could have acquired chemical materials.

Moreover, there is evidence that jihadist rebels have used chemical weapons in the Syria-Iraqi theater. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has previously confirmed reports that IS had been using chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq throughout 2015 (http://cnnnewsnetwork.com/2017/01/03/security-minister-isis-planning-mass-casualty-chemical-attacks-in-uk/). The OPCW also confirmed that in August 2015 mustard gas had been deployed by a “non-state actor,” likely jihadists, killing six people in Syria, saying “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo. Another case suggested possible non-state actors’ use of chemical weapons in Idlib, the area of last week’s attack (www.opcw.org/news/article/director-general-circulates-opcw-ffm-reports-to-states-parties/). OPCW’s Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu has stated that the sulfur mustard gas used in terrorist attacks in Syria and Iraq might have been manufactured by Islamic State on its own, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of OPCW, said in November. The OPCW experts samples of mustard gas employed in the August 2015 attack were examined by OPCW experts who concluded that the “substance may have been produced by ISIS itself” (http://cnnnewsnetwork.com/2017/01/03/security-minister-isis-planning-mass-casualty-chemical-attacks-in-uk/ and http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2016/11/syria-conflict-chemical-arms-un-opcw-jihadist.html).

Moroccan authorities recently dismantled an IS chemical weapons cell in possession of both toxic chemical and biological substances and a large stock of fertilizer. These substances can be used to produce homemade explosives deispersing a deadly toxin (www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-security-islamic-state-idUSKBN14L0ZC).

In December 2016, a Europol report, citing intelligence sources, warned there is evidence that IS has demonstrated interest in using chemical and/or biological weapons to carry out mass casualty attacks in the United Kingdom (http://cnnnewsnetwork.com/2017/01/03/security-minister-isis-planning-mass-casualty-chemical-attacks-in-uk/). The report noted: “IS is known to have used sulphur mustard gas in Syria and is thought to be able to produce the gas itself. IS is believed to include people who were formerly engaged in Iraq’s weapons program and it is assumed that the group has access to Iraqi and Libyan storage sites of chemical weapons. In addition, there are indications that IS is experimenting with biological weapons” (www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/…/modus_operandi_is_revisited.pdf, p. 11).

Why and how might jihadists have perpetrated this attack? Why? Seeing the emerging American convergence with Russia’s position on Assad remaining in power at least temporarily, the jihadists had to act. They did so in order to preempt the emerging US-Russian convergence on Assad, complicate Turkey’s east-west dilemma and calculus, and ultimately weaken the nascent coalition against global jihadism that potentially could be formed formed in Syria and then applied elsewhere. The timing of the Idlib chemical attack is curious. It comes just days after US officials stated they were no longer seeking Assad’s removal from power. On March 30th US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley decared that removing Assad was no longer the US priority in Syria (www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39450570). The same day Tillerson stated that the Syrian people should decide Assad’s “long-term status” (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/latest-ivanka-trump-shes-heartbroken-syria-46594684). In response to criticism of Haley’s and Tillerson’s statements, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said regarding Assad, “there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.” In effect, Washington was officially communicating its abandonment of the the Barack Obama administration’s ‘Asssad must go’ police set after the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack also allegedly perpetrated by Assad’s Syrian air forces. Moreover, the shift signaled a surrender to Russian Vladimir Putin’s long-standing position that Assad is the lesser of two evils and a necessary bulwark against the Islamic State And other jihadist forces fighting the Assad regime in Syria and the post-Sadaam regime in Iraq. Is Assad brazen, stupid, or being set up? It remains unclear.

Already in response to Trump’s cruise missile attack Russia has announced it is abandoning the 2015 U.S.-Russian memorandum of understanding pledging both sides to inform the other of air actions in order to avoid midair confrontations over Syria between Russian and American or other Western pilots. Moreover, Moscow is vowing to help strengthen Assad’s air defenses. This might mean Moscow’s provision of more formidable S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems to Syria. In addition, Putin’s spokesman Dmitrii Peskov said Trump’s attack caused “significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state” (www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-condemns-us-missile-strike-on-syria/2017/04/07/c81ea12a-1b4e-11e7-8003-f55b4c1cfae2_story.html?tid=pm_world_pop&utm_term=.7f1d3839c8ee). Russian PM Dmitrii Medvedev said the U.S. strikes were illegal, had been “one step away from military clashes with Russia,” and “completely ruined” U.S.-Russian relations (www.thesun.co.uk/news/3275613/donald-trump-us-attacks-syria-chemical-attack-sarin-latest-news/).

How? Jihadis from the Al Qa`ida and/or Islamic State could have stacked chemical materials in the target hit by the Syrians and then drawn the Syrians’ attention to said target. Moscow claims that the Syrian air force hit a jihadist chemical weapons factory, dispersing the toxins into the air. Washington rejected this scenario immediately without having any time whatsoever to accurately assess its likelihood. Media evidence has focused on civilian testimony from across the border in Turkey in which civilians claim they saw “chemical bombs” falling from the sky (http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/05/middleeast/idlib-syria-attack/). Can civilians discriminate between chemical and conventional bombs at all, no less at such a distance?

Assad and Jihad in Comparative Perspective

As Daniel Pipes notes, both sides – the Assad regime and the jihadists who overwhelmingly dominate among the rebel forces – are morally bankrupt (http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/2017/04/no-to-bombing-syria?utm_source=Middle+East+Forum&utm_campaign=eee9cf522b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_04_07&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_086cfd423c-eee9cf522b-33609985). Both Assad and the jihadists may be willing to use chemical weapons. The record outlined above indeed shows that Assad and the jihadists are equally as likely to have carried out chemical attacks in Syria. However, IS and other jihadists in Syria and elsewhere are much more inclined to carry out chemical or other WMD mass-casualty means. They do so as a matter of course with mad glee, proudly advertising their heinous attacks in propaganda videos. The jihadists in Syria and Iraq as well as elsewhere around the world have carried out hundreds of mass casualty attacks, including chemical ones; Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons perhaps twice now and would have done so as a matter of self-survival not routine tactics. In the 2013 Ghouta attack rebel forces had made steady strategic gains moving to an approach to the Syrian capitol, Damascus. There’s a difference, and by attacking Assad, even a chemical weapons-wielding Assad, Trump is playing into the hands of the global jihadi and global Islamist revolutionary movements.


All of the above is NOT meant to say that Assad did not perpetrate the chemical attack. He might have, jihadists might have. It is too early to tell now and it was when Trump ordered his strikes. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude other than that Trump has jumped the gun in ordering the cruise missile attack on Syria. He has shot and maybe will ask questions later, as I suspected would be something of his style.

Both Washington and Moscow should have sought a UN or other independent investigation into the origins of the chemical attack and then with evidence in hand taken action bilaterally or unilaterally as relations played out. Washington should have refrained from responding militarily without sound evidence that Assad perpetrated the attack. For its part, Moscow should have warned that whoever perpetrated the April 3rd would suffer consequences, either in the form of reduced support if Syria was the perpetrator or in the form of stepped up military action if the rebels were. Instead, both sides jumped to conclusions, and Trump pulled the trigger. Consequently, the times just got yet a little more dangerous.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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