Missile strikes unlikely to deter future Assad attacks
Psychological damage to opponents is powerful
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military has grown dependent on the use of chemical weapons to battle rebel groups and it is unlikely that last week’s attack by U.S. and allied forces will completely deter his army from using the weapons in the future, analysts say.
“This is now part of their standard combat doctrine,” said Gregory Koblentz, a chemical weapons expert at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The April 7 Syrian chemical attack that triggered the U.S.-led retaliatory strikes forced the surrender of a rebel group holed up in a suburb of Damascus. “It changed the course of battle on the ground,” Koblentz said.
The use of chemical weapons in that battle illustrates how Syria’s armed forces typically use the banned substances. Assad’s military, which is backed by Iran and Russia, have difficulty in defeating rebel groups when they are in well-defended positions in densely packed cities or neighborhoods.
The use of chemicals weapons, which can be delivered from helicopters, artillery shells or grenades, often indiscriminately kill or inflict horrible injuries on everyone within the targeted area. The devastation breaks the will of rebel fighters and often turns civilians in the area against the rebels.
In Douma, the site of the April 7 attack, rebels agreed to leave the area within hours of the attack.
“It’s effective in compelling surrender,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “This is a regime that is willing to destroy the entire country rather than lose power.”
The U.S. military, along with France and Britain, fired 105 missiles against three chemical weapons facilities in Syria on Saturday. The Pentagon said it has severely crippled the country’s ability to produce the banned weapons.
“We took the heart of it out,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said after the strikes.
The Trump administration has warned that any future use of weapons will trigger another attack.
But the Pentagon acknowledged that Syria’s chemical weapons capability has not been completely destroyed. “There’s still a residual element of Syrian program that’s out there,” McKenzie said.
Analysts also question how much of a deterrent impact the strikes will have. The attack was limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not designed to topple or weaken Assad’s grip on power in the country.
The risk of a limited attack is that the regime knows it can absorb the punishment.
After the attack, Assad backers flooded the streets in Damascus in a demonstration of support for the country’s armed forces. Visiting Russian lawmakers claimed Assad was in a good mood when they met him.
Still, it seems likely the attacks severely damaged Syria’s ability to mass produce deadly chemicals such as sarin, a nerve agent, and other chemical weapons.
The attacks wouldn’t have an impact on their ability to use chlorine, which can be legally purchased, and other chemicals may be stored in warehouses that weren’t struck. The U.S. military avoided hitting targets that could send clouds of deadly gas into the air.
Syria’s armed forces will likely resume using small amounts of chemical weapons, such as those that can be delivered by grenades or other small weapons. “They’ll try and stay below the red line,” Koblentz said.
Using chemical weapons proves to core supporters that Assad is willing to go to great lengths to remain in power, Cafarella said. He “is deliberately creating a psychological effect,” she said.