U.S. Response to the Reported Chemical Attack in Douma, Syria

On April 7, 2018, a suspected chemical weapons (CW) attack in opposition-held Douma, Syria, left dozens dead and sickened hundreds more. While horrific images coming from the Douma attack have seized the world’s attention, chemical weapons have been used more than 20 times since last year’s missile strike and at least 8 times just since the beginning of 2018. The Bashar al-Assad regime uses chemical weapons because the benefits for use outweigh the cost. The only way to make CW use stop is to change that calculus.

President Trump warned that a military response is coming, and the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on April 9 where it failed to adopt three resolutions on investigative mechanisms to determine responsibility for the attack. Though military action may be an important part of the international response to the crime, it will come to little avail if not embedded in a broader set of sustained efforts to address this problem economically, diplomatically and legally as well.

Q1: Chemical weapons use has continued in Syria despite last year’s U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base. Why is this happening?

A1: This latest attack fits a repeated pattern. When the international community, particularly the United States, seems distracted or indicates its intent to pull back, the Syrian regime feels emboldened to seek battlefield gains through chemical attacks. Why does the Assad regime do this? Because it works. It is a deliberate move by the regime to coerce and depopulate opposition-controlled areas, along with industrial-scale conventional force against Syrian civilians. By targeting the Douma suburb outside of Damascus, Assad is eliminating a near threat to the capital and sending a signal to other remaining opposition-held pockets that they are next.

It is insufficient to frame the casualties in these attacks solely in terms of those affected by chemical agents. First, the psychological effects of these chemical attacks, and the added risks they pose to children and the elderly, are devastating. Second, like many previous episodes, this one reportedly involves conventional targeting during and after the chemical attacks, which flushes civilians out of sheltered areas and makes them vulnerable to conventional bombing. This two-pronged tactic ensures that besieged civilians feel they have no place to hide and nowhere to protect their children.

Q2: What options does the United States have to respond to the reported April 7 attack in Douma?

A2: Since the Khan Shaykhun attack, options to address these crimes have only gotten worse. Russia vetoed the continuation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)–UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in November 2017, the investigative body with the mandate to attribute CW incidents in Syria. Furthermore, Russia has obstructed any moves toward holding the Assad regime accountable via the United Nations and other mechanisms, deliberately ignoring its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and abusing its power in the UN Security Council, all the while suspiciously seeming to have knowledge of operations before they commence. It is difficult not to conclude that Russia is complicit in these attacks. These developments are further reinforced by the territorial gains Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has made over the last year to further consolidate his control. Going forward, it will important that not only the Syrian regime, but also its enablers, face costs for the continued use of chemical weapons.

The United States should also work with like-minded nations to leverage a new multilateral mechanism for addressing such use. On January 23, foreign ministers from 25 countries met in Paris to launch a new multilateral effort to seek accountability for the use of CW— the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. This new international initiative met with little fanfare at the time. It should be strengthened. Adding countries not closely aligned with the P3—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—could help highlight the violation of international law and make the issue less one of a dispute between the P3 and Russia. Nordic, South Asian, and South American countries seem likely supporters. Its structure should be bolstered with a modest secretariat to convene and coordinate member action. It should also be connected to other forums and institutions beyond those associated with the nonproliferation system, to engage other political efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war and prosecute those who have perpetrated war crimes, including CW use. The partners can press for institutional reforms and mechanisms that will improve the speed and quality of international responses in the event of future attacks, in Syria and beyond.

In parallel, the United States and other members of the Security Council must continue to push for action within the Council and hold Russia to account for shielding Assad’s atrocities. The Trump administration should insist on the immediate insertion of investigators on the ground through the authority of the secretary general and/or the OPCW to gather critical physical evidence, interview witnesses and victims, and ensure that the full record of these crimes is not lost. Finally, engaging the UN General Assembly may be necessary as a way to circumvent the misuse of power within the Security Council itself.

Q3: What are the implications for U.S. strategy?

A3: The United States and its allies and partners need to take a comprehensive approach to the crisis in Syria. CW usage stands out given its humanitarian implications and broadly recognized legal prohibitions, but there is a clear linkage between developing the case for war crimes against civilians for both CW and conventional weapons usage under the Geneva Conventions. They sit on an equal playing field.

Additionally, when the United States considers its deterrence and accountability options, too often severity is wrongly valued over certainty and consistency of consequence. This tendency can lead to self-deterrence for smaller-scale offenses and encourages limit testing by perpetrators. The United States and its international partners should broaden the menu of military, diplomatic, economic, and judicial response options to ensure that every CW attack is met with a cost-imposing response that is also still proportional and consistent with its overall strategic aims.

Steps to improve accountability and strengthen investigative mechanisms should be nested in a comprehensive strategy to protect U.S. interests in Syria, including countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, countering terrorism, deterring Iranian destabilizing behavior, and competing with Russia. The end goal should be deterring and pressing Assad (and his supporters) to end the deliberate targeting of civilians and agree to a negotiated political settlement to the civil war. Specific elements of this strategy should include:

  • Conducting punitive strikes against Syrian aircraft used in the Douma attack and strikes on similar airframes to prevent future atrocities, ideally in combination with European and Middle East partners;
  • Targeting remaining elements of Syrian CW research, development, and production capabilities;
  • Compelling grounding of Syrian helicopters, by force if necessary;
  • Sanctioning Iran, Russia, and North Korea for their support of Assad’s CW program;
  • Pressing via diplomatic channels for political and technical negotiations on Syria’s future, including a negotiated political solution that holds Assad accountable for any future use of CW and conventional weapons to deliberately target civilians via the threat of further sanctions and military strikes;
  • Using the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons to collectively engage all members of the OPCW Executive Council to reach the votes necessary to initiate noncompliance proceedings and refer Syria to the Security Council; and
  • Sustaining commitment to counterterrorism and stabilization missions via local partners in Northern and Eastern Syria to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) but also as a point of leverage and deterrence. This commitment should be based on local conditions not arbitrary timelines and with burden sharing with Gulf partners and European allies.

The Syrian conflict proves time and time again to be uncontainable in destabilizing the region and shredding normative frameworks for the use of force. It is the arena in which U.S. adversaries are testing deterrence, competition, and the bedrock normative frameworks that undergird U.S. and international security. If the United States wants to lead and compete in this environment, it must adopt a comprehensive approach to Syria and reinforce accountability mechanisms and normative underpinnings for the use of force. Certainly, after seven years, with 500,000 dead and millions displaced, Syrian civilians deserve no less.

Rebecca Hersman is a senior adviser and director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Melissa Dalton

Rebecca Hersman