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TOP NEWS: US Enforces Red Line In Syria With Strikes But Gains Vague

Sat, 14th Apr 2018 13:41

ISTANBUL (Alliance News) - The second US military response to alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria in two years raises questions about whether limited strikes will deter President al-Assad. US President Donald Trump also risks escalation with Iran and Russia, were he to destabilize Damascus.

Trump use of military force, in alliance with France and Britain, appeared designed to force a relatively simple concession from the Syrian government: Stop using chemical weapons.

The strikes this time, following an alleged chemical weapons attack a week ago in a suburb outside Damascus, were more forceful than Trump's first round of missiles launched against Syrian government targets one year ago, after a similar alleged use of chemical weapons.

However, if the 2017 strikes did not deter, experts questions whether the latest pounding of government targets is likely to effect change in Damascus, where President Bashar al-Assad was shown by state media calmly walking into his office just hours after the assault.

Nor is it clear how al-Assad's key backers, Russia and Iran, will respond, amid jitters of spreading regional conflict and even a clash between Moscow and Washington, however unlikely that may be.

UN Secretary General Antionio Guterres put those fears into words, warning just hours before the US-led alliance attack that conflict prevention systems were teetering. 

"The Cold War is back with a vengeance, but with a difference," he said. "The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present."

The US strikes appeared limited in the sense that they would not undermine al-Assad's position or badly damage his ability to continue to wage war against rebels. The word "symbolic" was being thrown around by analysts.

"US, UK and France's governmental statements importantly seem to effectively define narrow objective, not lending to significant escalation," said Ofer Zalzberg at the Crisis Group think tank on his Twitter feed.

Ultimately, it is up to leaders in Damascus to determine whether using chemical weapons would be so dangerous as to upset their chances of survival. So far, the US has shown a willingness to increase the dosage, but not destabilize the government.

"Right now this is a one-time shot, and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this," US Defence Secretary James Mattis told a reporter who asked of this was a sustained military operation to prevent chemical weapons.

"Will this deter Assad from using chemical weapons again? Possibly, not least because he's essentially won the war anyway. Will it change anything else? For better or worse, no," said Faysal Itani at the Atlantic Council, noting that he sees a clear US desire to avoid escalation with Iran and Russia.

Calls for a tougher line, though, continued to flow in from those who, for years, have been urging for al-Assad's ouster.

"Anything short of decisive diplomatic follow-up will render this assault the most meaningless of gestures," said Frederic Hof, a former US diplomatic envoy to Syria who has consistently taken a hard line on the Syrian government.

"If Assad remains free to indulge in mass homicide, Washington will again be inadvertently drawing a red line on sarin while flashing a green light for everything else," Hof said.

While the use of chemical weapons is in clear defiance of international law, chlorine bombs and even nerve agents like sarin are not the main killers in Syria.

Conventional warfare, including airstrikes and intense shelling, kill far more people. Hundreds of thousands have died in Syria's civil war, ongoing since 2011, most of them from bombs and bullets.

Russia and Iran have sharply condemned the US strikes. Moscow's envoy to the US said the attack "will not be left without consequences".

But British Prime Minister Theresa May has pointed out that Russian obstruction of meaningful investigations at the UN Security Council left the Western alliance with few options.

That said, the US and its allies do have vulnerability within Syria, with US forces on the ground there fighting the Islamic State group.

Indeed, the US, Britain and France have hundreds, if not thousands, of troops on the ground in northern Syria engaged with Syrian Kurdish-led force to fight Islamic State, a group almost defeated in the country.

Already this year there were signs of a clash between Russian mercenaries fighting for al-Assad and US-backed forces in the north-east, which lead to possibly dozens of deaths on the Syrian government side.

Moving past the question of containing al-Assad, Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May will likely continue to face questions at home as to the constitutionality and legality of the these strikes, potentially acting as a restraint. 

US lawmakers, especially from the Democratic party, have already voiced concern that Congress was not involved in the decision making.

"It is Congress, not the president, which has the constitutional responsibility for making war," said former presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders.

"The international community must uphold the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, but it is unclear how Trump's illegal and unauthorized strikes on Syria achieve that goal," Sanders wrote on Twitter. 

By Shabtai Gold, dpa

Copyright dpa

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