On Tuesday, April 4, 2017, the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Ibrid province, located in northern Syria, was attacked with a chemical weapon. Reports indicate that 89 people died, including 33 children. Horrific pictures of children and adults gasping and struggling to breathe were shown on the news outlets and social media. Reports confirmed that the nerve agent, sarin gas, had been used.
The United States and Europeans immediately condemned the attack and accused Assad’s use of lethal chemical gas against his own people. The Trump administration stated that they had substantial intelligence to prove that the Syrian regime had a role in the deadly chemical weapons attack, and on early hours of April 7, the U.S. military launched 59 precision guided Tomahawk missiles targeting the Sharyat Airfield near the Syrian city of Homs, from which weapons were allegedly fired by Assad.
The Syrian government denied responsibility. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said at a news conference in Damascus: “I stress to you once again: The Syrian Army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapon—not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds.”
Russia and Iran—staunch allies and supporters of President Assad—denied Assad’s involvement and condemned the U.S.’s military retaliation against the Syrian airbase.
Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Poland, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates immediately supported the U.S. military intervention and condemned Assad. Japan and China remained neutral or somewhat unclear on their position.
I. The U.S. Position
The Trump administration was certain that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, therefore crossing America’s red line previously drawn in 2013 by President Barack Obama. During his joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah, II, on April 5, President Trump rebuked Assad by saying, Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many lines beyond the red line. Many, many lines.”
A. Syria and the Obama Administration: A Historical Background
The April 4 attack was not the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. President Obama faced the same challenge in 2013 as a chemical weapon hit the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus on the morning of August 21, 2013. Nearly 1,300 people lost their lives.
A year earlier, in 2012, Obama had warned Assad against the use of chemical weapons, stating: “We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
The Syrian government was blamed for the August 21 chemical attacks. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon responded immediately and called the attack a “war crime,” detailing it as the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them” in Halabja in 1988 (a city in Iraqi Kurdistan attacked with the nerve agent sarin and mustard gas during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war which resulted in 5,000 casualties and 7,000 injuries).
President Obama warned the Syrian regime that Assad had crossed America’s red line and that he would face American military intervention if there was any proof that his regime had used chemical weapons against his people. The Syrian government and military denied involvement in the attack and called the allegations as “false and completely baseless,” and challenged the U.S. to present irrefutable proof. President Assad accused rebel groups—that he claimed were supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—of using chemical weapons in order to turn around the conflict in Syria because they were losing the fight. He further argued that it would not be logical for his military to use weapons of mass destruction in an area where Syrian soldiers were present.
Russia challenged the U.S. and demanded that Washington to present evidence of Assad’s involvement. President Vladimir Putin described accusations against the Syrian as “utter nonsense.” Instead, Russian officials suggested that rebels had used the opportunity to provoke international military intervention in Syria.
In September 2013, Russia provided additional information that showed rebels had used chemical weapons not only on August 21, 2013, but on several other occasions. Putin also criticized the UN inspectors’ report against Assad, calling it as “distorted” and “one-sided,” and based upon “insufficient” information.
On September 7, 2013, Mr. Trump urged President Obama not to attack Syria, by tweeting, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder [sic] for another (and more important) day!”
President Obama never attacked Syria militarily. Instead, his administration proceeded with discussions that would lead to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. On September 20, 2013, under the Oversight of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the United States, Russia, and Syria agreed to the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” which called for the “removal and destruction” of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014. The elimination process included “the facilities for the development and production of these weapons.” Syria agreed “to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” The United States and Russia committed “to work together towards prompt adoption” of the resolution. the UN Security Council Resolution 2118 was signed on September 27, calling for the Syrian government’s commitment to a timeline to destroy its chemical weapons facilities. Russia was assigned oversight. The following is a paragraph taken from the Resolution:
Welcoming the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons dated 14 September 2013, in Geneva, between the Russian Federation and the United States of America (S/2013/565), with a view to ensuring the destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons program in the soonest and safest manner, and expressing its commitment to the immediate international control over chemical weapons and their components in the Syrian Arab Republic.
On October 1, OPCW inspected Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Five days later, on October 6, the actual destruction began.
A.1. Russia’s Increasing Foothold in Syria
The international agreements gave Russia the green light to establish a stronger foothold in Syria. Russia continued its involvement in the Syrian civil war by supplying the Syrian Army with political and military aid.
As the Syrian civil war intensified between the regime and militant groups opposing Assad’s government, Moscow initiated its direct military involvement. On September 30, 2015, Russia launched its first airstrike in northwestern Syria. The United States immediately responded, questioning Moscow’s true intentions. Was Russia’s increased military operation to fight ISIS? Or was it to increase its military presence in Syria and become the dominant military force in the country, and at the same time, protect Assad’s regime? Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Washington’s allegations and claimed that Russia had carried out the “legitimate” military operation “at the request of Syria’s legitimate authorities.” To support Russia’s claims, Syrian state-run news agency (SANA) reported that Russian warplanes had targeted “ISIS dens” in three cities in Homs Province.
Shortly after, on October 11, 2015, in a televised interview, Vladimir Putin defined Russia’s goal in Syria as “stabilizing the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise.” To justify Russia’s military presence, Moscow argued the importance of keeping Assad in power, stating that should Assad’s regime fall, “there would be chaos and that would allow terrorist groups to consolidate.” According to the chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, since 2015, “Russian aviation has carried out 19,160 combat missions and delivered 71,000 strikes on the infrastructure of terrorists” (primarily on ISIS and the al-Nusra Front).
In early January 2017, Russia began to withdraw its forces from Syria. General Gerasimov reported that the decision was based on President Putin’s orders as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces that the Defense Ministry to begin reducing “the Armed Forces grouping in Syria.” This by no means meant Russia pulling its support away from Assad or removing its influence and presence in Syria. Without a doubt, Russia’s military intervention helped Assad to remain in power.
B. Syria and the Trump Administration: Current Events
Speaking to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, President Trump described his “emotional reaction” as he saw the events unfolding in Syria after the April 4 sarin gas attack. “I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me—big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
President Trump received international praise—with the exception of Russia and Iran—for his April 7 missile strikes against the Syrian Sharyat airfield. For the United States and its partners, the U.S.’s military attack was a strong and vital message to the global community vis-à-vis Syria—in particular Iran and North Korea—that “the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated.”
In a joint statement on April 11, Secretary of Defense Mattis and General Joseph Votel explained that the U.S. intelligence was clear that Assad had used chemical weapons, and that the United States had warned President Assad that “he should think hard and long before using chemical weapons again.” The U.S. military strike in Syria demonstrated that the United States “will not passively stand by as Assad uses chemical weapons” and that “military action was taken to deter use of chemical weapons.” Assad is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol (or The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare) that prohibits the use of chemical weapons. Additionally, in 2015, Assad signed an agreement to remove its nuclear weapons stockpile, and Russia agreed to oversee the process. Therefore, “Syria will pay a high price for violating the agreement. He must have respected international rules regarding chemical weapons. The administration is determined that a measured military response could best deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.”
Secretary Mattis asserted that the U.S. is prepared to strike Syrian airfields should Assad use chemical weapons again; however, “defeating, breaking and destroying ISIS in Syria” remains the priority for the administration. “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.” General Joseph Votel also confirmed that the administration’s goal and priority was “to defeat the ISIS command.”
Earlier in the week, during her interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on April 9, U.S. Envoy to the UN Nikki Haley stated that regime change was something that the administration was considering. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime. If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.” She added that the administration was also focused on fighting ISIS in Syria and ending Iranian influence.
On the same day, in his interview with John Dickerson of CBS television’s Face the Nation, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that defeating ISIS in Syria remained Washington’s top priority. “It’s important that we keep our priorities straight. And we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS. Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria.” As to the possibilities of a regime change, he said: “I think what we’re hopeful is through this Syrian process, working with coalition members, working with the UN, and in particular working through the Geneva process, that we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy.”
When asked to define the Trump Mid-East Doctrine during an April 4 press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer replied: “The president has made it clear in the past and [I] will reiterate today, that he is not here to telegraph what we will do. There is not a fundamental option of regime change, [but he said Assad’s ouster would be] in the best interests of the Syrian people. Any leader who treats their people to this kind of activity” presents a threat.
Incoherent and inconsistent messages coming from within the Trump administration created confusion in Washington and among U.S. allies as to what exactly Trump’s Mid-East Doctrine and/or policies toward Syria, Russia, Iran, and the Middle East as a whole was.
The administration’s policies seemed to become more clear after Secretary Tillerson’s two-day meeting with G7 foreign ministers which took place in Italy on April 10–11, 2017. At the conclusion of the meeting, Tillerson told journalists: “It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, but the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.” Tillerson demanded Russia to choose either “to align with the United States and like-minded nations” or align with Assad, Iran, and the militant group Hezbollah.
Russia and Iran considered the U.S. strategy toward Syria as a back-door scheme in countering Iran and its nuclear program, and at the same time punishing Russia for its recent agreements with Iran. (On March 28, Iranian President Rouhani and Russian President Putin signed 14 documents for the expansion of cooperation in various political, economic, cultural, military, scientific, and legal fields.)
As fierce opponents of regime change, Moscow and Tehran challenged Washington to explain how the removal of heads of states in Iraq and Libya had contributed to regional stability. They argued that both countries have become fertile grounds for the growth of terrorism.
II. The Russian Position
Russia opposed the U.S.’s intelligence reports showing that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons on April 4. In a statement, Vladimir Putin criticized Washington for repeating the same mistake twice, which was based on the “now-discredited claim that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys [told] to the security council” that they had found chemical weapons in Iraq. “We have seen it all already.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the U.S. airstrikes “aggression against a sovereign nation” carried out on a “made-up pretext.” Deputy Russian UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov called for an international fact-checking investigation, and warned the UN Security Council that the American “decision served as a starting point for future provocations by terrorists and extremist structures with the use of chemical weapons, [who] sought to discredit the official Damascus regime and to create a pretext for the use of military force against a sovereign state.” Putin repeated these allegations during his April 9 telephone conversation with Iranian President Rouhani, stating: “Washington’s missile attack on Syria under the pretext of using chemical weapons was a show and pre-planned act. . . . This action is unacceptable and an attempt to support terrorism.”
Opposing U.S.’s intelligence reports, Putin argued that Moscow had information “from different sources” showing that “chemical weapons attack was carried out by rebel groups,” and not Assad, with an intent to fuel tensions between Russia and the United States, and “to drag the U.S. into the conflict.” Furthermore, he said: “We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared in other parts of Syria, including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using [chemical weapons].” Putin did not offer any proof for his assertions. However, he voiced concerns that the U.S. would use such “fake alleged chemical attacks” in the future to justify further U.S. missile strikes on the regime.
U.S. Envoy to the UN Nikki Haley sent a strong response to Putin questioning Russia’s integrity in moving Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile out of the country. “Let’s think about the possible reasons for Russia’s failure. It could be that Russia is knowingly allowing chemical weapons to remain in Syria. It could be that Russia has been incompetent in its efforts to remove the chemical weapons, or it could be that the Assad regime is playing the Russians for fools, telling them that there are no chemical weapons, all the while stockpiling them on their bases,” she said during her statement to the UN Security Council on April 6.
Questions were asked whether the Russians had advance knowledge of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In their joint statement, Defense Secretary Mattis and General Joseph Votel confirmed that the U.S. intelligence reports did not show Russian involvement but confirmed that Assad’s regime “planned, authorized and executed” the attack. However, Nikki Haley continued to question Moscow’s complicity with Assad.
Tensions escalated between the United States and Russia. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was preparing to leave for Moscow on April 10 for direct talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described U.S.-Russian relations as “the worst since the end of Cold War,” and made it clear that Russia would engage with the United States only if they were treated respectfully and as an equal. Reports came out of Moscow that there were no plans for a Tillerson-Putin meeting. Vladimir Putin seemed to be sending a strong message to the administration that he refused to engage with the United States if the U.S. portrayed itself as having the upper hand. He would engage only when treated as a critical and an equal partner.
To most in the international community, Russia seemed to be in a stronger position. U.S. allies seemed more clear about Russia’s position toward Syria and somewhat unclear about America’s policy. Russia seemed to have a more precise, clear, and decisive strategy with respect to Syria. On the other hand, it seemed that Tillerson was going to Moscow with some uncertainties and lack of clarity on the issues. Even Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov communicated Russia’s uncertainties. At the very beginning of their direct talks, he told Tillerson that he wanted to understand Tillerson’s “intentions and the intentions of the United States so that they can continue their talks.” While both parties agreed that there was “low level of trust” between the two countries, they agreed that two sides shared common interests in the region and the global community. Lavrov explained:
Other than fighting terrorism in Syria and the region in general, we have a common interest to make sure that we get a political settlement of this very acute crisis in Syria. Russia over the past years has tried to get a compromise, has deployed many efforts in order to do so, and made sure that many of the players inside Syria and outside get to the negotiating table of the UN. And we confirmed that our cooperation would be to try and put this process forward.
We participated, of course, in Geneva with our American colleagues fully, but we also have the Astana platform where the U.S. took part as observers. We have to help the international organization, and also are committed to try and find approaches to make sure that the Israel-Palestine issue or conflict is looked at, and Yemen as well. And I think that our joint efforts will not be useless in that respect.
We looked at the problem of Afghanistan. As you know, in the last couple of years, we have been meeting in various formats aimed at external assistance to Afghanistan. And one of the attempts which we have undertook will come on April 14th in Moscow. . . . with the participation of Russia, and both Afghanistan and its neighbors, including the Asian countries, and we hope very much that the U.S. representative will also be there.
We are particularly concerned, of course, about the regional and global military-political buildup.
The two sides also discussed Ukraine and committed themselves to find a solution “through political and diplomatic efforts” for North Korea in order to avoid military confrontation.
At the conclusion of the Tillerson-Lavrov’s face-to-face meeting, Putin met with Tillerson for two hours but the two men appeared unable to agree on the facts involving recent chemical weapons attack in Syria or Russian interference in the U.S. election.
III. The Iranian Position
As a stanch ally of the Syrian regime, Iran immediately condemned the U.S. military operation against Syria and stated that the “unilateral military strike was conducted without a mandate by the UN Security Council or U.S. Congress’s approval.” President Rouhani criticized the attacks, claiming that they had been conducted with “aggression against international norms” and “under a pretext that was neither proved, nor clear.” He warned against future U.S. strikes to prevent U.S.-Russian military conflict, and accused the United States of repeating the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11, using unfounded claims about chemical weapons possessed by the leader of a Muslim country.
Rebuking the United States, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted: “As the only recent victim of mass use of chemical weapons (by Saddam in the ’80’s), Iran condemns use of all WMD.” The U.S. military is “fighting on the same side as al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen and Syria.” During his press conference on April 11, Rouhani reaffirmed: “Iran is a chemical weapons victim and when there is talk about Khan Shaykhun, we are reminded of Sardasht and Halabcheh. The Iranian nation has suffered from chemical weapons for years and under no circumstances should any terrorist group or anybody else be allowed to use chemical weapons.”
Rouhani’s government called for an international, impartial “fact-finding commission to investigate the issue scientifically to make the case clear. . . . If the commission finds out that the act was committed by the terrorists, then Americans will have to answer and explain their actions. Why did the U.S. do this? If terrorists have released the gas, then U.S. has actually helped terrorists to further destabilize the region. U.S. action in Syria is not compatible with international law, reason, and the interests of other countries. Countries encouraging the U.S. are doing this because they want to strengthen terrorists.”
In his conversation with Vladimir Putin on April 9, Rouhani called the U.S. actions “a case of blatant violation of an independent country’s sovereignty” and that it was “necessary that the unilateral act be discussed and condemned in the United Nations Security Council.” With respect to the allegations of Syria’s use of chemical weapons he said: “Reports suggest that terrorists have access to chemical weapons and U.S.’s attacks allow terrorist groups to use chemical weapons once more.” He denounced the support of regional countries—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, and Algeria—for supporting the U.S.’s missile attacks on Syria, stating: “We must not allow the path of combatting terrorism to be deviated by some countries supporting the U.S.’s latest action.” He suggested that “the solution to the Syrian issue was political” and offered Tehran’s readiness to “consult, cooperate and coordinate with Moscow in its fight against terrorists.” He called for a Russian, Iranian, and Syrian cooperation “to confront violence and terrorism.” In his view, “Military action created unnecessary division among countries that needed to collaborate and fight against terrorism.”
In Iran’s perspective, the United States was trying to weaken Iran and create internal instability during a critical presidential election season. Tehran argued that the most critical regional and global issues were al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Yemen. “Instead of fighting against terrorists, the U.S. is fighting the regime that is fighting against terrorists,” contended Rouhani. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has believed from the beginning that terrorists, who have congregated in Syria from throughout the region and out of the region and are fighting the people in the most savage way, must be confronted. Of course the government of Syria needs reform.”
Ayatollah Khamenei broke his silence on Sunday, April 9, and responded to the United States and the entire global community. In his meeting with senior commanders of Iran’s Armed Forces, he condemned the U.S. military “aggression against Syria,” stating:
What Americans did is a strategic mistake and error and they are repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. Former American officials created Daesh (ISIS) or helped it, and the current officials [of the United States] are also strengthening Daesh or group similar to it.
Khamenei believed that “the enemy was trying to implement a plan to undermine the morale of the Iranian people, officials, and the armed forces, and infuse them with the spirit of “it is impossible and we cannot (nemishavad va nemitavanim).” He further attacked the criticisms of the “enemies of Iran”:
The enemy is trying through the use of psychological warfare tactics to create weakness and shakiness among officials and infuse them with the message that it is impossible and we cannot do anything.
Khamenei believed that the current U.S. strategy against Iran, in addition to economic warfare was psychological warfare, stating:
The enemy criticizes every sector of the Armed Forces like the Army, the IRGC (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), the police force, and the Basij force (volunteer paramilitary force) in different ways, so that they would be depleted [of their vitality], but the Armed Forces must become stronger in terms of organization on a daily basis. Financial deficiency must not be an obstacle to progress. . . . We can overcome current shortages through innovation and strong resolve.
Through faith in God, self-confidence, discipline and strong management, we can overcome every obstacle.
Using the example of Iraq-Iran war, Khamenei attacked the U.S.’s and European countries’ claims of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, saying:
The hypocritical European governments, who currently claim that chemical weapons have been used in the case of Syria, supplied Saddam with tons of chemical weapons during the imposed war, so that, he would attack our frontlines [as well as the towns of] Sardasht and Halabjah with those weapons. . . . Today, Europe is in trouble due to the wrong step it took to strengthen the Takfiris. People do not have security in their homes and on the streets, and America is repeating the same error.
He warned the United States and “the enemies of the Islamic Republic,” in the event they consider attacking Iran:
The Islamic Republic has shown [to the world] that it will not retreat as a result of such irrelevant remarks and wrong measures. [Iranian] people and officials, who believe in the Revolution, will not retreat in the face of threats and harsh words through trust in God.
Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Baqeri reported that the armed forces were “increasing the strategic depth of the Islamic Revolution, promoting support for the resistance front and conducting a serious fight against Takfiri terrorists and their supporters.” Also: creating and promoting “sustainable security, safeguarding the territorial waters and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, bolstering defensive and offensive capabilities and preparedness of the Armed Forces, as well as round-the-clock monitoring of the country’s air space.” He added, “The Armed Forces are committed to further boosting their efforts and continuing movement in order to achieve the goals of the Islamic Revolution.”
In his Monday, April 10 meeting with various government sectors, Khamenei warned them about the tactics of the enemy, stating: “Today the major front of vicious enemies is trying to confront the Islamic establishment; they all seek to destroy the Islamic Republic from within.” Hence, he called them to mobilize themselves spiritually and move forward with a revolutionary spirit just like they did during the Iran-Iraq war.
On Tuesday, April 11, Iran’s Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan and his Syrian counterpart Fahd Jassem al-Freij spoke over the phone and agreed to tighten the coordination and military collaboration in the war on terrorism.
On the same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Moscow would host the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers for a three-way meeting. The meeting was set to begin on Friday, April 14. This was an extension of the 2017 Regional Conference on Afghanistan that was scheduled in 2016 with Pakistani and Chinese senior officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not planning to take part in the meeting.
IV. The Syrian Position
In an April 5 televised news conference from Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem denied his government’s use of chemical weapons, stating: “We condemn such a criminal act. It is not reasonable that the Syrian army could use chemical weapons now at the time when it has been achieving victories on various fronts.” Assad insisted that Syria no longer possessed nuclear weapons.
On the same day, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss Syria’s attacks and to investigate the situation. The Council reconvened on April 12 for a vote on a drafted resolution that would condemn Assad for the use of chemical weapons. The Russian Federation vetoed the resolution. Consequently, the UN Security Council reported: “With a ‘no’ vote from permanent member Russia, the United Nations Security Council today failed to adopt a resolution that would have condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria and called on the government to cooperate with an investigation into the incident.” The international community tried to distance Russia from Syria, but for the time being they were unable to do so.
U.S. Envoy to the UN Nikki Haley berated Russia’s decision:
With its veto Russia said no to accountability. Russia said no to cooperation with the UN’s independent investigation and Russia said no to a resolution that would have helped promote peace in Syria. Russia once again has chosen to side with Assad, even as the rest of the world, including the Arab world, overwhelmingly comes together to condemn this murderous regime. Russia said this resolution was biased and the Assad regime was not involved. . . . If the regime is innocent as Russia claims, the information requested in this resolution would have vindicated them. Unfortunately, this was Russia’s eighth veto on the Syrian resolution. The United States takes no pleasure in seeing Russia isolated again on the security council.
To the Syrian government, she said: “You have no friends in the world after your horrible actions. The United States is watching your actions very closely. The days of your arrogance and disregard of humanity are over. Your excuses will no longer be heard. I suggest you look at this vote very carefully and heed this warning.”
In an interview with AFP’s Damascus Bureau Chief on April 12, Assad responded, asserting that the chemical attack was “100% fabrication.” He added that Syria gave up its arsenal three years ago. “We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.” The Syrian government would not commit such acts because it is “morally” unacceptable, he added.
On April 12, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reported that Russia had sent a letter “to Syria and the UN about the ban on chemical weapons to make sure that they give permission to the investigators to carry out an impartial, unbiased investigation in Idlib and also at the airfield that underwent the attack.”
Secretary of State Tillerson disputed Russia’s assertions and insisted that in the U.S.’s perspective and supported by the facts that the administration has, they can say conclusively that “the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned and it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces.”
V. U.S.’s Mother of all Weapons Message to Russia, Iran, Syria, Terrorists and North Korea
While Russian, Iranian, and Syrian foreign ministers were preparing for their 2017 Regional Conference on Afghanistan in Moscow, on April 13, the United States deployed a 21,000-pound bomb known as the “mother of all bombs” (or MOAB) in the mountainous area of the Nangarhar province in remote part of northeast Afghanistan, destroying tunnels and underground areas. White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that this was a signal to ISIS that the U.S. “takes the fight against ISIS very seriously.” Only 36 ISIS militants were killed. It seemed that the administration was sending an immediate and potent message to Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea ahead of a very critical weekend.
According to reports by American and Afghani officials, Moscow and Tehran had stepped up their efforts in Afghanistan by expanding ties with the Taliban to weaken NATO-backed President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government. In his February 9 Senate testimony, Army Gen. John Nicholson Jr., the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, reported that Russia had “begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban” and boost its support for insurgents. For years Russia and Iran have collaborated together to push U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. On March 28, Iranian President Rouhani and Russian President Putin signed 14 documents for the expansion of cooperation in various political, economic, cultural, military, scientific, and legal fields. Part of this partnership entailed collaboration in Afghanistan.
On April 14, a day after the launch of the MOAB, Russian, Iranian and Syrian Foreign Ministers met in Moscow and issued a strong warning to the United States against launching new strikes on Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denounced the U.S. missile attack on Syria as a “flagrant violation” of international law and called for international investigation of the chemical weapons attack. Confident with the staunch support of its two major regional allies, Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem asserted that the trilateral meeting was a “strong message” to the United States. Lavrov underscored that fighting terrorism provided “the only possible reason for using military force on the territory of Syria.”
On January 24, 2017, four days after President Trump took office, Russia, Iran, and Turkey met in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana to discuss the implementation of a “trilateral mechanism” that would safeguard the Syrian ceasefire between the government and a number of opposition groups. They excluded the United States. The diplomatic delegations of the three countries met again on February 6 in Astana to further discuss efforts to strengthen Syria’s fragile truce, once again excluding the United States and the Gulf States. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured Washington that the talks were not intended to “replace Geneva with the Astana format” or be a substitute for UN-led talks. Despite Russia’s claims, it was becoming clear to the Trump administration that Russia was expanding and strengthening its regional ties.
VI. Questions and Issues for Trump Administration to Consider as They Formulate Their Approach Toward Syria
U.S.-Russian Fallout: Russia at the Center of the U.S.-Syrian Conflict
On the other hand, while Putin is showcasing a strong front, there is no doubt that the recent U.S. military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan and strong warnings issued by the administration have put Moscow in a difficult position. Russia is forced to find a common ground with the United States. But again, this does not mean that Putin will forego his regional and global interests.
The critical question U.S. allies and foes ponder is: Who will be the leading power in the region? Who will be spearheading the fight against ISIS or crisis in Syria? Will Russia continue to have the advantage or will the United States step up its efforts and take the lead? How much will Russia be willing to compromise on this issue? Thus far, Russia seems to have the upper hand due to its military presence and robust alliance with the Syrian and Iranian governments. Russia is a staunch supporter of Assad and has had an active military presence in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, and Syria is a critical geopolitical property for Moscow. Russia will do everything it can to ensure that it does not lose its port in the Mediterranean and access to nearby countries. So, in Putin’s perspective, Moscow is the suitable power for managing Syria and leading the fight against ISIS.
The United States has made it clear that “Assad must go!” Russia disagrees. Britain fully supports Washington’s demands for Assad’s removal and insists on sanctions on Russia if Moscow refuses to end its support for the Syrian government. While Germany, France, and Italy fully support the United States for holding Assad accountable, they seek lasting political settlement in Syria. They believe that U.S.’s punitive strikes offered “a window of opportunity to construct new conditions for political process in Syria.” Germany and Italy insist that isolating Russia by increasing broad economic restrictions is counter-productive and without Moscow and Tehran there is no solution in Syria. EU High Representative Mogherini dismissed the idea of a regime changed and emphasized the need for finding “a credible political solution for the conflict in Syria.” In his April 12th conference with President Trump, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg showed little inclination toward regime change. He stated: “The strike against the airbase in Syria was a U.S. operation based on U.S. intelligence. . . . We also strongly support the efforts of the fact-finding commission to try to find out actually what happened and to make sure that we don’t see any use of chemical weapons in the future.”
Clearly, U.S.’s NATO allies are seeking a lasting political solution in Syria and question what regime change really means for Washington. Does it mean direct U.S. military operation in Syria or more boots on the ground? Would this mean that the U.S. would take the lead and collaborate with Russia?
Iran in the Midst of this Tangled Web
As the U.S. further negotiates with Russia over Syria, one cannot forget that in this U.S.-Russian-Syrian triangle, Iran plays a critical role. Russia and Iran have been collaborating in Syria for years, fighting on the same side against U.S.-backed rebels, and both have boots on the ground. It is clear that finding a political solution to Syria is nearly impossible without Iran. If the U.S. is going to demand that Russia pull its military forces out of Syria, how would this unfold with the presence of Iranian military?
As an ardent supporter of the Assad regime, from the outset of the civil war in 2011, Iran has invested both economically and militarily in Syria—over $10 billion—and has sent thousands of troops with causalities of about 1000 troops and eight generals.
In his telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, President Rouhani expressed Iran’s readiness to engage in dialogue regarding combating terrorism and reforming the Syrian government. Is the United States ready to consider Tehran’s proposal to give Iran the green light to play such a critical role in Syria? Iran is still considered a “state in sponsor of terrorism” and a “hostile” country by the U.S. State Department. Tensions between the Trump administration and Iran have intensified with respect to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s dual travel bans, Iran’s anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli rhetoric, and U.S. accusations of Iran contributing to regional instability. Considered a “hostile regime” that intends to spread its revolutionary ideology throughout the region, Washington questions Iran’s intentions and ability to reform the Syrian government. If Iran is trusted with the task, will Tehran reform the Syrian government toward moderation in order to embrace a democratic system and force Assad to end the slaughter of its own people? Or will Tehran use its Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah militia to transform Assad’s forces into Hezbollah II and Syria into Lebanon II, so that it can be used as a weapon against U.S. interests in the region and as an Iranian anti-Israeli front?
Both Iran and Russia have warned President Trump that they will respond with force should there be any further military action against the Syrian regime. The U.S. military raid on Assad’s airfield crossed the Russian-Iranian red line. What would this Russian-Iranian response entail?
Iran is faced with a critical presidential election on May 19. The U.S. policy toward Iran can affect the outcomes of the Iranian election. Rouhani faces challenge by hardliners in Iran who are trying to limit his influence and ability to be re-elected. They know that the Rouhani presidency will mean continued normalization of the revolutionary environment in Iran.
As tensions intensify between the United States and Iran over Syria, Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program, we may witness “the Putin Effect” in Iran: the rise of an Iranian president closely affiliated or one out of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who will challenge the United States on every level—Middle East policy and regional and global interests—with uncompromising domestic and foreign policies that will include expansion of Iran’s nuclear program and its political and military power. Supreme Leader Khamenei has already put the Iranian armed forces on a high alert. Last time he did this, Iran advanced in its nuclear technology. Since Trump’s Iran policy is to ensure that Iran does not become a weaponized state and expand its influence in the region through its regional allies and proxies, it would be in the U.S.’s short-term and long-term interests to find a common ground where the two countries can cooperate on i.e., ISIS. A diplomatic engagement may decrease tensions in Tehran and decrease the chances of the election of a conservative, radical, anti-American, and anti-Israeli president.
Iran’s Protégé Hezbollah and Other Militia Groups
Alongside Iran, Hezbollah has had a strong presence in Syria with several thousand troops with more than 2,000 casualties and 10,000 injured. This further complicates a solution to Syria without Iranian cooperation.
Syria is also occupied with other forces including Afghani and Pakistani militia groups, rebel groups, the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups. Basically, Syria has become a fertile ground for growth of terrorism. Those seeking to marginalize U.S. power in the region benefit from political unrest and a power vacuum. How would the United States combat against all these forces and exile them out of Syria? Will brokering a political settlement mean dicing Syria into zones of influence?
Israel in the Midst of a Volatile Region
Russia and Iran warned the United States that they will “respond with force” if their red lines are crossed.” What this response means and how will it be translated is yet to be determined. Reports show that the U.S. and Israel are concerned that Iran may be using its proxies for retaliation against Israel’s northern border. The Israeli government has already voiced concerns about security threats and is concerned about the growth of militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, allegedly trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Corps. Furthermore, how would Syria affect the Arab-Israeli peace process? Is a peaceful resolution even possible in the midst of regional contention, fighting, and wars?
The Suffering of the Innocent
The Syrian six-year war is considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011. Nearly 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within their country. More than 4.8 million have fled Syria to bordering countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Armenia, and several EU countries. At least 470,000 civilians have lost their lives. We do not have exact numbers of the injured. But the Syrian crisis does not end here. These numbers grow every day.
On April 15, a vehicle filled with explosives hit the convoy in rebel territory near Aleppo, carrying civilian evacuees fleeing government-held towns. Nearly 126 people were killed. Among the dead were 68 children and many more were injured.
Syria reminds us of the historical pain and suffering of millions of Jews during the Holocaust and the 1.5 Armenians during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Perhaps the human suffering coming out of Syria will encourage all Americans, in particular Washington, to return to these historical events and learn from them so that we do not repeat this genocidal history.
A Global Strategy
The U.S. military strike in Syria reminds us once again that global terrorism is the foremost enemy of our world today. ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and other militia and terrorist groups pose the biggest threat not only through their tactical strategy but also through the spread of their ideology. Terrorists often thrive in chaos, political unrest, and power vacuums. As they move through territories that they capture, they hope by killing innocent human beings they can spread their dread and force young people, especially the displaced, to join their militant camp. They enslave young boys and girls, force young boys to become their soldiers, suicide bombers, and martyrs, and make young girls their sex slaves.
Syria has not lost 470,000 innocent civilians; the human causality is much higher than we know due to those we lose every day to the terrorists’ camp.
When implementing Mid-East policies, the U.S. administration must take all these facts into account and consider the entire region so that a broader strategy is embedded in a global strategy. The U.S. policy toward any country in the Middle East must entail a global assessment of the entire region and beyond. U.S. policymakers will benefit tremendously if they consider the politico-religious culture and mentality of the region. Excessive fear and threats often unite and strengthen the U.S.’s regional foes. Calculated, decisive, and coherent Mid-East policy will help both the United States and its NATO and Middle Eastern allies. While uncertainty on a tactical level can be helpful, it could hurt U.S. interests on a strategic level.
No one can deny that the United States is the strongest military force in the world. However, there is a critical component to the U.S.’s smart power. Often diplomacy and soft power have greater strength than missiles and bombs.
In his Easter Sunday message on April 16, Pope Francis sent a special message of hope and life to the global community during these volatile times. He prayed for peace in the “Middle East, beginning with the Holy Land, as well as in Iraq and Yemen.” He also prayed for the innocent and the most vulnerable among us, who become the prey of wars, terrorism, famine and human trafficking that continue to plague our world and “sow horror and death.”
We too join and ask God to bless and protect America and our global community. During this holy season of Passover and Easter, we are reminded once again that we truly need God’s redemption.