Following a chemical attack that allegedly claimed the lives of more than eighty civilians, the United States conducted an air strike against the Shayrat airbase operated by the Syrian government.
This article is part of a series. Part 2 “Confidence Is High”.
As this is a developing story, it may contain some factual inaccuracies. Please feel free to recommend corrections.
On Tuesday, April 4th more than eighty civilians in the area of Khan Sheikhoun, were claimed to have died as the result of an apparent chemical weapons attack. The dead are alleged to have included men, women and children of no known military or political value. The allegiance of these individuals is unknown to us at this time.
The United States Department of State is reported to have confirmed the source of the attack. It is claimed that the chemical warhead was delivered via one or more aircraft having flown from Shayrat airbase.
As early as the day of the incident, President Trump’s statements seemed to support the idea that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, had ordered the attack(s). By Thursday, April 6th the President of the United States stated the following immediately preceding a missile strike against Syria. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
CBS news has reported that nearly sixty Tomahawk cruise missiles were used in the attack, by U.S. forces against the Syrian military airbase. The BBC has claimed this number to be exactly fifty-nine.
First, we have to ask who benefits from such a chemical attack. Next, if and how the U.S. could confidently determine the source of the attack. Then, why such a large number of cruise missiles. And finally, what impact this may have on the geopolitical climate.
Those are the facts, as we know them so far. What follows is my personal opinion based on my knowledge and experience and may be entirely incorrect.
Motive & Authority:
Why might the Syrian government execute a chemical attack against a noncombatant target? It could be terrorism. An effort to “shock and awe” rebel and separatist forces in the region, or more specifically the civilian populations that might support them.
Consider this. If your country were invaded would you fight to defend it, or would you stay quiet and let whomever takes power rule over you. A surprising number of people tend to choose the latter when tested. Many have families and other commitments. Some are rather disinterested in the politics so long as they can provide for themselves. This does not even consider people who would openly, or quietly, support regime change.
It is not surprising in this light that many people in the Syrian government might regard such people as traitors. “Afterall how have they survived all this time behind enemy lines,” the thinking might go. Though it is not unusual for civilians to get caught in the middle of such wars, we should not expect everyone to uniformly understand that. A motive for a chemical attack by Syrian forces emerges from these conditions.
Of course that would require an order from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, right? Well not exactly. The Syrian military is not known to have an equivalent to the U.S. Permissive Action Link system. It should also be noted that, while legal launch authority in the U.S. lies with the President of the United States, weapons release can be conducted without him. In the event of his death, or under certain alert conditions counterstrikes can be executed without the president’s need to approve the individual actions taken. In other words, the President of the United States can’t type his Gold codes into a warhead to arm it, nor are they even needed to do so. Even with the fairly remote possibility of an errant or rogue detonation of a U.S. nuclear warhead, the U.S. does not even secure its own chemical weapons with such a system. The security of the Syrian chemical weapons release, and ordnance handling procedures should not be expected to be more strict, especially considering the current state of the war. The disarmament program notwithstanding, chemical munitions are likely to still be available to some Syrian military commanders.
The government of Syria is unlikely to admit if he has lost control of any fraction of his chemical arsenal, as that would invite foreign intervention. Many nations might be willing to risk outright war with Syria to prevent military grade chemical munitions from reaching the hands of potential terrorists. While I will not expand on it here, there have been defections, and even other problems with disloyalty among Syria’s military ranks since before the current war. (Link provided for context. We do not necessarily endorse or agree with this coverage.)
A more likely scenario is the use of chemical weapons by a rogue Syrian officer. This is especially considering how little the Syrian government has to gain from making such an attack. The government, in fact, seems to be winning the war already. Such an escalation only makes sense if all other ordinance has been thoroughly depleted, or if a high value military or political target was the objective. In earnest both scenarios are plausible given the increased use of improvised bombs by the Syrian Air Force. The nature of these improvised bombs limit their effectiveness against, high value targets.
The preceding analysis assumes a level of sanity among members of the Syrian government. Such an assumption should not be taken for granted.
Though the U.S. government is clearly confident that Syria executed the attack, we should not dismiss that opposition forces had adequate motive and opportunity. First, the forces opposed to the Syrian government are not unified. They are made up of different groups, including Al-Nusra, The Free Syrian Army, Daesh(ISIS), and others. The death of those loyal to any one of these groups would be of no particular loss to the other groups beyond their value as a meat shield that the Syrian forces must cut through. If such people can be sacrificed for a greater benefit, it would be done.
It is not uncommon for false flag attacks to be executed in order to procure popular support. If successful, food, medicine, and even lethal military aid can be gotten from the endeavour. The U.S. air strike on a Syrian air base would be precisely the kind of support one would want. If true it would represent an enormous enemy victory.
This is possible for two reasons. One, the Syrian government may not have total control of its chemical weapons stockpiles. This may allow enemy forces to procure such weapons. Second, chemical weapons are not magic. It is possible that opposition forces are producing small batches of chemical nerve agent. While such enemy manufactured compounds are likely to be of low purity and volume, the effect would not necessarily be less impactful. It should also be noted that while opposition forces possess artillery and mortar pieces, they are not known to have ever operated a bomber-mission capable aircraft.
Could some other organisation have executed the attack? Sure, but until we have more information we will not speculate further.
The next report discusses how the U.S. could know who executed such an attack.