The huge dangers of military escalation in Syria

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, and the author of 'Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins.'
A child receiving oxygen following an alleged poison gas attack in Douma, Syria. Syrian rescuers and medics said the attack on Douma killed at least 40 people. The Syrian government denied the allegations, which could not be independently verified. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)
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After seven years of brutality and bloodshed, it seemed as if the long nightmare of the Syrian civil war was winding down. Syrian rebels were fragmented and largely destroyed by Bashar al-Assad's military and its Russian allies. Not a satisfying conclusion, perhaps, leaving a murderous dictator in power over a broken country.

But more palatable than an endless war.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump was making plans to pull American troops out of Syria. Then came the chemical attacks on the town of Douma last weekend, killing at least 60 people, mostly civilians, and injuring hundreds more. Trump promised swift and severe retribution in the form of air strikes. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed that Syrian use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.

In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, Trump, Macron, and May made good on their threat. The coalition fired 105 Cruise  missiles at three chemical weapons sites near the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs. The Pentagon described the strikes as "precise, overwhelming and effective."
An image from the Syrian Civil Defence While Helmets shows medical workers treating children from the effects of a suspected chemical weapons attack. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)

President Trump, apparently unchastened by George W. Bush's infamous use of the phrase, tweeted, "Mission Accomplished." Syria decried the strikes as illegal. Russia did not, however, mount a military response as feared, but took its objections to the UN.

And that seems to be that ... sort of. The Trump administration says it has no plans for further air strikes. But the air strikes added yet another layer of tension and complication to the Syrian conflict. It's a humanitarian disaster and an unholy mess, with no solutions in sight.

When trying to make sense of such intractable, dangerous situations, we often call on our wise friend from the UK, Paul Rogers. He's Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, and he's the author of Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins.

MICHAEL: When you heard the phrase, "mission accomplished", what did you think?

PAUL: It took me back to the first of May, 2003, 3 weeks after the statue of Saddam Hussein had come down in the Baghdad square, 6 weeks after the war started. President Bush made that declaration on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. But of course the war there lasted 6 years.

So what does this particular night of bombing mean? The idea that it is "mission accomplished" is very difficult to accept. 

The West has been fighting a very intensive war against ISIS over the last three years. They've used, I think, 106,000 guided bombs and missiles. They've killed about 60,000 ISIS supporters and at least 6,000 civilians. So by comparison, just over 100 Cruise missiles at some very selected targets is very small.

I think it's much more a case of political symbolism, than a change in the strategic mood.
People walk on rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, March 30, 2018. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

MICHAEL: It's interesting you say that because Vice President Pence, at a meeting in Lima, Peru on Saturday afternoon, said that this is sending a message to Moscow. Is that what this was, a message to Moscow?

PAUL: I don't think Moscow will be particularly bothered. I think they will just shrug their shoulders and say, well this is rather less than we expected, but by golly we'll make some propaganda out of this. 

MICHAEL: Has the raid effectively neutralized Syria's ability to carry out chemical attacks? 

PAUL: It's nonsense to talk about this actually having a major effect. Syria has used Sarin, which is one of the original nerve agents, but much more commonly, chlorine. It's heavier than air and it is particularly effective against people who are caught in cellars.

Chlorine is a very common industrial gas. I went online and just checked  -- you can buy it on the web. The idea that you can destroy a country's capacity to produce chlorine gas canisters by bombing 3 quasi-military targets is frankly nonsense.

The idea that you can destroy a country's capacity to produce chlorine gas canisters by bombing 3 quasi-military targets is frankly nonsense. - Paul Rogers

MICHAEL: The mild response from the Kremlin suggests to me that perhaps Trump forewarned the Russians that the attack was coming.

PAUL: I think that is almost certain. The so-called deconfliction arrangements in countries like Syria, between the American military and the Russian military are there to prevent either side killing people on the other side by accident.

The targeting was not aimed at any of the places where Russian troops were present. But hopefully, it has given the impression of taking action against  breaking the long-term cultural ban on the use of chemical weapons. 

MICHAEL: Somebody on one of the American networks yesterday afternoon used the phrase, a "bomb ballet". That one side does it, it's choreographed, then the other side, and so on. That's a very dangerous kind of choreography, isn't it?

PAUL: It is. And the other thing the one always has to remember is that old acronym AIM  - which stands for Accidents, Incidents and Mavericks. The possibility of things untoward actually pushing you over the edge. And even though this attack has turned out to be a lot less than people expected, there is still that danger.

MICHAEL: But has this attack fed the appetite of Trump's new and very hawkish cabinet secretaries? Like John Bolton, the new national security adviser and Mike Pompeo, the incoming secretary of state? Are they emboldened by these attacks?

PAUL: There's something very odd here. I watched the press conference involving Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, just after Trump had spoken. And it's clear that there was a pretty sharp difference of opinion between him and General Dunford on the one side, and the White House on the other. Mattis was clear that this was a one-off. Trump has come on board, but the indications are there is a division.

John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, I think, will have been disappointed that this was such a limited offensive. I suspect that as some pretty good journalists get to grips with this over the next two or three days, we'll see a lot more of this coming out into the open.

Four British Royal Airforce Tornados conducted conducted precision strikes on Syrian installations involved in the use of chemical weapons in the early morning of April 14, 2018. (Cpl. L. Matthew/British ministry of defence/EPA-EFE)
MICHAEL: How do chemical attacks compare in gravity to the rest of the humanitarian disaster that this regime has visited upon its civilians? Is it the right thing? Is it a moral thing to do, to make chemical weapons the so-called "red line"?

PAUL: In terms of casualties, chemical weapons are one tiny part of the disaster that's unfolded in Syria. There has been a vigorous attempt with the Chemical Weapons Convention in the early post-Cold War years, to prevent the expansion of the use of chemical weapons. Some of the major players have either got rid of their main chemical weapon stocks, or are in the process of doing so. Chemical weapons were almost under control.

This is an uncomfortable thing, but if we say we're going in because we have this moral authority, many people in the region remember that the most dangerous use of chemical weapons was actually about 30 years ago, by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish town of Halabja in eastern Iraq. 5000 people were killed. But at that time, Hussein was informally allied with the West against the Iranians. There was virtually no comment made from Washington, or even from Western capitals.

So you get the problem. In the Middle East, people are cynical and they just say, this is hypocritical, there are other motives. Whether there are or not, that is the perception.

MICHAEL: At week's end, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, is sending inspectors into Douma, the area where the attack occurred. Does it matter what their findings are?

PAUL: The problem with something like chlorine is that it is commercially available. It's used in household equipment. It is used in water purification equipment. Some of the nerve agents are very volatile. They disappear fairly quickly. It'll be difficult but not impossible to find out what was used, because these people are very skilled and they've been very successful elsewhere in picking up even small traces of things. The assumption is that this was done by the Assad regime, and that is probably the case. But you have to be careful because even if it is shown that these agents were there, it doesn't prove who delivered them.

MICHAEL: This may sound like a ridiculous question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Is there such a place as Syria? The most populous part of the country is held by the Assad regime, part of the country is in rebel hands, much of the north is held by the Kurds. Can we really call it an integrated nation?

PAUL: No, it is not an integrated nation. Syria is not just a weak state; it is a failing state. Even if we were to get a more peaceful solution, it would take probably two generations to try and rebuild trust.

 Syria is not just a weak state; it is a failing state. Even if we were to get a more peaceful solution, it would take probably two generations to try and rebuild trust.- Paul Rogers

MICHAEL: Should the Americans maintain some kind of military presence in Syria? Didn't do a whole lot of good in Iraq.

PAUL: You've got to be very cautious about any major external state trying to maintain high levels of influence. If we had a stronger, more robust, and more effective U.N., which was able to act with a degree of authority which even its leading member states had to accept, that would be a very different world. If there was one lesson to be learned with what's happened here, I would like to see countries such as the UK, which is a P5 member, playing a much more significant role in strengthening the entire U.N. system.

MICHAEL: But how could that happen? Because every time something comes up in the Security Council, the Russians veto it.

PAUL: Absolutely true. It's not something you can do overnight. But in the longer term, we've actually got to try and change the international culture. How you do that, with people like Putin and Trump around, I don't know. But in the longer term there is actually no alternative.
Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group.

MICHAEL: Is it possible to imagine a Syria that is not ruled by Assad? Or does the West simply have to figure out a way to live with him in power?

PAUL: In the short term, they probably have to. In the longer term, that kind of regime has got to end. How you do it, I don't know. It's quite extraordinary, the way over 5 or 6 years there was a degree of peace restored after the terrible Biafran war back in the 1960s. You've got to remember that there's this side of human affairs which can be very positive.

MICHAEL: Let me ask you finally, and with great respect, I know that you are a glass half-full sort of person. What do you think is the best case scenario for Syria, for the region and for the Western countries involved?

PAUL: The Western countries have to accept that going for quick military answers almost never works. The Taliban were got rid of in 10 weeks flat after 9/11. And we're still fighting in Afghanistan 16 1/2 years later. We still seem to think that the response has to be military at a very early stage. It's what I call "Lidism"; we keep the lid on things rather than go to the underlying problems. Now to try and talk about the underlying problems, I think, Michael, would probably take us another half hour or so.

The fundamental thing is, you must not assume that you can gain from the outside, more or less on your own with a small coalition, use force and sort things out. It's been proved time and time again, it does not work.

MICHAEL: I'll tell you my friend, we will find a half hour, sometime in the coming months.

PAUL: I would love to.

Note: Michael's interview with Paul Rogers has been updated to reflect news events. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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