Trump harsh but unclear on 'price' Syria will pay for chemical attack

As U.S. President Donald Trump considers a military response to the chemical attack in Syria, the situation on the ground suggests it might not produce the desired result, writes Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is in clear control of the country, supported by Russia and Iran

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to reporters at the White House on Monday before meeting with his national security team - including new national security adviser, John Bolton, middle - to discuss Syria strategy. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump ponders military action in Syria following a suspected chemical attack on the weekend, there are fresh questions about what a possible strike would achieve.

Around this time last year, Trump was praised by some of his allies — including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — for taking a hard line against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad by ordering a limited strike on a Syrian air base, after reports the regime had used chemical weapons on its own people.

Launched from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea, the April 7, 2017, attack destroyed about 20 per cent of Syria's active warplanes, according to American officials, and damaged the runway at al-Shayrat Air Base, near Homs. But just days later, the local governor bragged that the base was operational again.

The alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma this past weekend, which has left dozens dead, seems to offer proof that Trump's 2017 strike failed to act as a warning against further chemical weapons use.

If Trump officials "are serious about deterrence, they'll have prepared a series of sustained strikes every time Assad uses chemical weapons," said Robert Ford, the last American ambassador to Syria, in an interview with Middle East news site The National.

This image from the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets shows medical workers treating children from the effects of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)

Trump promises response

The latest Syrian chemical attack occurred on Saturday, but it was only after images of children and adults who appeared to be foaming at the mouth began circulating that Trump seemed moved to respond. In a tweet, the president wrote that Russia and Iran "are responsible for backing Animal Assad."

"Big price to pay," he continued.

Moscow has called the allegations of a chemical attack in Douma "fabrications." Both Russia and Syria are now inviting inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog into the country to investigate.

Beyond inquiries and diplomacy, the Pentagon is believed to be considering military options for Syria, including another limited strike. But some observers say it would not address the larger issue. 

"Repeating what Mr. Trump did in April of 2017 won't fix the chemical weapons problem in Syria," said Ford.

On April 7, 2017, the U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea at a Syrian air base. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Trump's military brass could also pitch a more complex — and dangerous — mission: a plan to restrict the government and forces loyal to it from launching future chemical attacks.

"Among the bank of possible responses are sites that are related to chemical weapons, Syrian helicopters and planes that drop them, and air defence systems," wrote Amos Yaldin, a former general who commanded Israeli military intelligence, in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

That option carries the risk of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russian and Iranian forces. 

"We recently warned of the possibility of such dangerous provocations," said Russia's Foreign Ministry in a statement on Sunday. "We have to say once again that military interference in Syria, where Russian forces have been deployed at the request of the legitimate government, under contrived and false pretexts, is absolutely unacceptable and can lead to very grave consequences."

International condemnation 

The suspected use of chemical weapons in Douma was swiftly denounced around the globe, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland stating that "Canada is appalled." She blamed the Assad regime, Russia and Iran for "repeated, gross violations of human rights and continued, deliberate targeting of civilians."

There were strong denunciations from London and Paris as well, which could indicate a third military option for Trump: a coalition effort to punish those responsible for using chemical weapons.

"We assess what has taken place and we'll also be discussing with our allies what action is necessary," said British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, has taken a tough line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. (Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken by telephone with Trump about possible joint military action.

"If the red line has been crossed, there will be a response," Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for President Macron, told Europe 1 radio. Griveaux said that intelligence shared by France and the U.S. "in theory confirms the use of chemical weapons."

'Let the other people take care of it'

Potential preparations for a military ramp-up in Syria come just over a week after Trump signalled he wants to end U.S. involvement in the Middle Eastern country.

"We're knocking the hell out of ISIS and we will be coming out of Syria, like very soon," he told an audience last month. "Let the other people take care of it."

There are approximately 2,000 American troops based in Syria. Their main task until now has been battling ISIS militants. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Top U.S. military chiefs reportedly advised the president that their forces need to remain in Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence. Many Syria analysts have said Trump's call to draw down the mission may have given Assad confidence that using chemical weapons wouldn't bring consequences. 

Even if U.S. military action is launched, it's unlikely to change the balance of power in Syria. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad and his forces have just won the battle for the eastern suburbs of Damascus after a bloody, months-long siege. It was his largest military victory since regaining Aleppo nearly 18 months ago. 

The regime now controls almost all of the cities in the country, and Assad's position is as strong as it's been since the Syrian war began in 2011.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.