Mis­sile strikes un­likely to de­ter fu­ture As­sad at­tacks

Psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age to op­po­nents is pow­er­ful

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Jim Michaels

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.

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