'It's possibly the worst way to die there is': Brian Stewart on Syria attack

The latest developments in Syria have raised many questions, including about the use of chemical weapons, the reasons behind the U.S. missile strike launched Thursday and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response to it. Security expert Brian Stewart responds.

CBC takes your questions about the developments in Syria

A Syrian child receives treatment at a field hospital in Saraqib, Idlib province, northern Syria, after a chemical attack, April 4, 2017. (EPA)

The latest developments in Syria have raised many questions, including about the use of chemical weapons, the reasons behind the U.S. missile strike launched Thursday and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response to it. 

Security expert Brian Stewart sat down with CBC's Michael Serapio to answer some of those questions as well as others posed during a Facebook Live.

Stewart is an award-winning Canadian journalist who spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent for CBC. He's now a senior fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

Here's a recap of the conversation. You can view the full video at the end of the story or see it with accompanying user comments on the CBC News Facebook page.

Replies have been edited for clarity and length.

What brought about the U.S. missile strike? Was it a surprise to you?

I've never seen Donald Trump so apparently moved by what he had seen in pictures [in the wake of the April 4 chemical attack in Syria].

I think it was a culmination of events. I think he felt that his administration was wobbling quite badly — there were a lot of distractions, most of them put out by himself.

And there were the biggies, the worries: China, North Korea and Syria. And I think he wanted to put down a marker where there was a legitimate — in his mind and in much of the world — international war crime with the use of chemical weapons.

USS Porter launches a missile in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy/AP)

So he decided to strike one out of six airbases in Syria, so it was somewhat limited, but he wanted to strike hard to get the message across. Not just to Syria and the Assad regime but also to China and North Korea, saying in effect: "Look, if we can do this to Syria, don't count out our actions against you if you get too dangerous."

And I think he wanted also to just stabilize his administration in the U.S., which has been all over the map.

What was the original impetus for U.S. involvement in Syria?

Syria has long been basically a Russian ally, certainly during the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Syria was almost a proxy, almost a partner. Russia has always wanted to build on its strength there.

The American [impetuses are] several. First of all, it supports Turkey and it supports Israel and Iraq.

I think the main impetus of the U.S. is to get a new government there that could actually hold. 

It's messy. It's not going to get rid of the Russians — it won't manage to do that, I don't think. They're going to be there for a very long time.

How do we know it was Assad who ordered the strikes?

U.S. intelligence has been recording on radar where the planes carrying the chemical weapons took off, where they dropped their weapons on the city.

So, there's no doubt in their minds — they're highly confident it was a Syrian attack. But how far up the chain it went, we don't really know, unless the NSA was able to get signals.

It's generally assumed in dictatorships that you don't go against the leader's wishes, that you're very careful of the line of command. 

I think it would be a brave officer, indeed, who decided, 'I'm going to go ahead with chemical weapons' without raising it with the boss on top. That could get you very quickly eliminated.

Shayrat airfield in Homs, Syria. (DigitalGlobe/U.S. Department of Defence/Reuters)

There are conflicting accounts about damage to the Syrian airbase. What should we believe?

They call it the 'fog of war.' Every time there's a conflict, there's a great fog, and different statements are made and confused.

I will say this, though: the Tomahawk missile that struck is quite an old weapon. I saw it first in the Gulf War back in 1991, and it was just being introduced then. It had GPS, which we'd never heard of. How would these missiles possibly hit? 

But they were so accurate. They would go down streets and turn right at corners. They have an extraordinary ability to hit their target.

So, I'd be a little more inclined to believe the American assessment, that all [but one] hit their target, rather than [the Syrian and Russian claim that] 29 for some odd reason went missing. It's very hard for these things to miss.

I'd be interested to see whether they sent advance rockets to the airbase to basically give a warning for everybody to get into shelter. 

They didn't want major casualties. They certainly didn't want to kill a lot of Russian pilots, or Syrians either.

What they might have done is send over a couple of these cruise missiles at first to scream low, then come around again, giving everybody a chance to get into the shelters.

Why are chemical weapons seen as more egregious than guns or explosives?

It is possibly the worst way to die there is.

I'm old enough to have met a lot of soldiers from World War I who had been gassed by chemical weapons. Their lives were blighted ever since.

People died gasping for breath, the sense that they're drowning from the inside. The fact this is happening to children is a monstrous thought.

People died gasping for breath, the sense that they're drowning from the inside. The fact this is happening to children is a monstrous thought. Again, it's not just the killing, it's the horribleness of chemical weapons.

And so indiscriminate. When you drop it on a town or a village in Syria, you know that women and children will die in large numbers. There's no escape. They will die in excruciating discomfort and pain.

If Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, pictured meeting U.S. President Donald Trump in in February, had said nothing in wake of the missile attack it 'would look extraordinarily poor on Canada,' says security expert Brian Stewart.

Was Trudeau right to support the U.S. missile strikes?

I think he felt that he probably had to. The fact that France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Australia — a whole host of countries are supporting it, that he could see a justifiable reason for Canada to support it.

Remember, he's supporting it as a way to get to peace talks, to get this to the United Nations, to bring a ghastly, horrible seven-year war to an end.

I think if Canada had sat there and said nothing, or come out and said we had no comment to make on the fact there's been a counterstrike on chemical weapons, I think that would look extraordinarily poor on Canada. 

Prepping for the worst can cause a collapse of morale and real panic in the world. I don't think we're there.

It's a very messy, murky, one-off deal, but I think all countries have to take a stand when chemical weapons are used. It's a bit like nuclear weapons. They have the capability of destroying whole populations.

This is a weapon that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. It is a potential weapon of mass destruction. I don't think the world can possibly stand by and let it be used.

Should we prepare for the worst?

No, because prepping for the worst can cause a collapse of morale and real panic in the world. I don't think we're there. I don't think this one attack is going to escalate to an all-out superpower war in Syria.

I think we have to prep for massive humanitarian relief efforts. No matter what we do, we're only barely scratching the surface of what is needed.