After the chemical attack that killed over 60 in Eastern Ghouta’s Douma on April 9, President Trump is threatening to strike Syria’s President Assad, in a replay of his decision to lob tomahawks at a Syrian airbase after the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, his tough talk is not fooling the Assad government; in fact, his embrace of half-measures in Syria belies the forcefulness of his rhetoric.
The chemical attack in Douma is likely a direct result of the US President’s statement on pulling US troops out of Syria. Even though those troops have a narrow mandate to combat ISIL, their presence testifies to an American commitment to security in Syria. Damascus has interpreted the statement as evidence of American apathy with regard to the regime’s actions. The Assad government therefore felt it could act with impunity in its assault on Douma, which it promised in late March, aimed at dislodging Jaish al-Islam (JAI). JAI was the last rebel group remaining in Eastern Ghouta, stubbornly holding its ground until April 12, when government forces succeeded in evicting the group. JAI was difficult to bring to the negotiating table, but the government’s decision to deploy chemical weapons carried the desired intimidation value, prompting JAI to capitulate and negotiate its final exit. Both the Syrian government and Russian forces deny the use of chemical weapons, and continue to spread misinformation by pointing to stocks of chemical weapons discovered in rebel hands. Indeed, the Syrian government invited international monitors to investigate the attack themselves, knowing full well that the battle in Douma severely complicates that prospect. Their denials are made more ridiculous by the highly detailed analyses and documentation that corroborate the accusations against the Syrian Army – as well as the fact that the rebels could not have fired chemical weapons canisters from the sky themselves, because they just don’t have helicopters.
Russia and the Syrian government have identified Trump’s penchant for the flashy, and took the lessons of Khan Shaykhun to heart. The threat of a “big price to pay” is less than terrifying, especially in light of the administration’s resounding lack of follow-through after the 2017 strike. Though American allies such as France and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Turkey) have voiced support for employing force in Syria, they are unlikely to act on their own. International efforts are easily stymied, as Russian efforts demonstrate at the UN, and such delays buy time for the Syrian regime to move its assets out of harm’s way and carry on otherwise undisturbed. Assad’s priority remains securing Syria’s pre-Civil War borders, and it will take more than a punitive strike to dissuade him. At the same time, talk of removing US troops telegraphs American reluctance to put steel behind its verbal commitment to deterrence, and incentivizes the Assad government to pursue its objectives with no restraint. If anything, Trump’s posturing gives Damascus and its allies the excuse they need to more sternly resist the American presence in Syria.
Nicholas Norberg graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic, and he has worked as a Middle East and Turkey analyst at Dataminr. He currently writes for the Journal on Middle East Politics and Policy at Harvard University, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.