On 7 April 2018, an alleged chemical weapons attack took place in Douma, Syria in which 70 people were killed. Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place — with Russia calling it a ‘staged thing’. US President Donald Trump blasted ‘that animal’ Syrian President Assad and said blame also fell on Russia and Iran for supporting his regime. Britain Prime Minister Theresa May said there was ‘unmistakable evidence’ Syria was behind the attack. ‘No other group could have carried this out,’ May said. A year ago, Syria was accused of using sarin gas in an attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun. An investigation by the UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded the Syrian air force had used the gas in its attack, which killed almost 100 people. In April 2016, the US launched a retaliatory missile attack against a Syrian airbase from where it alleged the attack had been launched. But the pinpoint strike did not deter Assad, and despite his firm denials, there is an abundance of evidence that Syrian forces, with Russian connivance, have been using chemical weapons against their own people on a regular basis ever since. The Assad regime has a hateful record of using chemical weapons against its own people. More than half a million Syrians have been killed in the civil war. Today, President Assad’s position in the Syrian civil war is unassailable as he is supported by Iranian-back fighters as well as the Russian air force. Assad has now cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country. Rebels and jihadist insurgents are largely contained to two areas along Syria’s northern and southern borders. Russia had entered the war in support of Assad in 2015. Russia and Iran’s support has helped tilt the balance of power in favour of Assad’s government. The civil war has further shattered Syria, and international powers including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran have intervened to fight for their interests. Iran and Russia have expanded their military reach. Today Russia has a presence on most Syrian military bases. Meanwhile, Iran has strengthened its proxies to deter and possibly confront Israel. The US still has about 2,000 troops in eastern Syria working with a Kurdish-led militia to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State. But with the militants now nearly defeated, American officials have started thinking about withdrawal from Syria. Before the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, President Trump had said he wanted to bring them home soon. Earlier, the US had called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to leave power and gave cash and arms to the rebels who sought to overthrow him. However, later it had resigned itself to Assad remaining in power. That was partly because it feared the vacuum that could emerge if Assad’s regime collapsed, and partly because it was clear that Russia and Iran were willing to support him fully. The primary reason for the strikes was not Syria itself, but the US’s own domestic politics; Trump wanted to appear principled and tough on the issue of chemical weapons Syria’s civil war has created an immense international refugee crisis. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes, and some 13.5 million need humanitarian assistance within the country. Among those escaping the conflict, the majority have sought refuge in neighbouring countries or within Syria itself. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Meanwhile, about one million have requested asylum to Europe. Germany, with more than 300,000 cumulated applications, and Sweden with 100,000, are EU’s top receiving countries. Today, Russia, the main powerbroker in the region, is allied with Syrian President Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war. Shi’ite-dominated Iran is Assad’s main regional ally and has provided military and economic support for his conflict with a range of Sunni Muslim rebel and militant groups. Iran denies having any conventional armed forces in Syria but has acknowledged military advisers and volunteers from the Revolutionary Guards Corps are there to help Assad’s forces. President Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, cleared out the last rebel strongholds in the Eastern Ghouta area. Today, the US, France and Britain believe that there is a circumstantial case that Syria and its Russian and Iranian partners bear direct responsibility for the incident. Syria’s government and Russia have denied a chemical attack took place in Douma. As expected, Russia, Syria and Iran have said reports of the Douma attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers and had accused the US of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the Syrian government. Syria and Russia have insisted that no chemical attack occurred and that only the opposition groups they call ‘terrorists’ possess chemical weapons. Russia warned that jumping to any conclusions about a reported chemical attack near the Syrian capital of Damascus without confirmed information would be wrong and dangerous as there is no investigation underway into the alleged incident. The Syrian conflict has become very complicated as it now involves several regional powers with diverse agendas. On 9 April 2018, Israel conducted an airstrike on Syrian air base that Iran was constructing. Seven members of the Iranian military were among at least 14 people reported killed in the strike, and Iran has threatened Israel with retaliation. The strike was the most significant direct attack of its kind, and the Iranians were expected to act in response. Israeli officials have repeatedly warned against Iran’s destabilising activities in Syria and defined its continued presence there as a ‘red line,’ which Jerusalem is prepared to act against militarily. Israel’s concern is that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group, will use Syria’s border to threaten Israel and stage attacks against Israeli civilians and troops. Israel fears that this will leave Iran open to set up positions along the border of the Golan Heights or deeper inside Syria. Israel has previously carried out at least one explicitly acknowledged attack on the Tiyas base, which it said was home to an Iranian drone programme. The strikes and its aftermath On 14 April 2018, the US, UK and French forces launched missile attacks on three sites allegedly linked to the production of chemical weapons near Damascus, as well as two military bases further north. America, UK and France were careful to characterise the attack as a one-off strike designed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. America’s defence secretary James Mattis had urged caution in the lead-up to the attack. The attack was twice as big as one launched by the US last year. The US Defence Department officials said on April 14 that American-led strikes against Syria had taken out the ‘heart’ of President Assad’s chemical weapons. The strikes were limited, with an eye toward making sure they did not draw retaliation from Russia and Iran and set off a wider conflict. President Trump made it clear when announcing the strikes that he does not consider it the job of the US to fix problems in the Middle East. The strikes failed to inflict any severe damage on Syrian military infrastructure. In this sense, the US, UK and French strikes were no different from the military action in April 2017. The difference this year was that Washington blamed not only the Syrian regime for the chemical attack but also its patron, Moscow. This gave the situation more tension, increasing speculations about a direct clash between the US and Russia. To Assad, it is clear that the US doesn’t have any strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict and is not even able to employ an effective mechanism to preclude the use of chemical weapons. Russia understood that the strikes on Syria are not really in retribution for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma and definitely not an attempt to influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict. It was simply a demonstration of force. The Trump administration would have to lead a strategic alliance to change the direction of the war. President Assad is unlikely to relent in his determination to consolidate his hold on the country. On its own, military force is meaningless. It must be part of a political strategy, and in this case, the strategy is about bigger issues than Syria itself and only offers a long-shot hope for the Syrian population. Military force can only be effective if it is part of a coherent and realistic political strategy. The main goal of the attack was supposedly the prevention of any further use of chemical weapons. The US, UK and France carefully avoided hitting Russian and Iranian targets. As expected, the limited strike in Syria was mostly symbolic in nature. The primary reason for the strikes was not Syria itself but domestic politics in the United States. President Trump wanted to appear as being principled and tough on the issue of chemical weapons use. Recall that the previous April 2017 strikes by cruise missiles were limited and largely ineffective. Then the strike failed to weaken Assad’s capabilities. Seemingly, these limited strikes will be ineffective also. Whether or not Assad is deterred by the latest strike remains to be seen. It is not clear what the Trump administration’s broader Syria strategy really is. It is known what the US won’t do, however. The US hasn’t voiced interest in removing Assad or in confronting Russia and Iran in Syria. Therefore, the Russian and Iranian reaction was limited to only public condemnation. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Syria’s backers stayed harsh. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strikes would have ‘a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations.’ Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, derided them as a ‘military crime.’ But there were no signs the Russian military was preparing a retaliatory response. On 16 April 2018, Theresa May said it was ‘legally and morally right’ for the UK to join air strikes against the Syrian regime to prevent ‘further human suffering’. She said that there was ‘clear evidence’ the Assad government was behind the Douma chemical weapons attack. The UK had ‘explored every diplomatic channel’ in response but regrettably decided there was no alternative to ‘limited, carefully targeted action’. She said the use of chemical weapons could not be ‘normalised’ in either Syria or elsewhere, insisting the attack was a ‘stain on humanity’ and fitted the pattern of the regime’s previous use of such weapons. The military response, she insisted, was aimed squarely at degrading the regime’s capacity to carry out further ‘indiscriminate’ attacks, rather than to try and topple the regime. The writer is a freelance columnist Published in Daily Times, April 24th 2018.