• Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.
The United States has attacked a Syrian air base with 50 to 60 cruise missiles in response to a chemical weapons attack it blames on President Bashar Assad. The justification for this action is the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, about 50 kilometres south of the city of Idlib, in which 80 people died, including dozens of children, and hundreds more were injured. This attack was done with chemical weapons, which appear to have involved sarin gas. Chemical weapons are prohibited in international law due to their inhumane and indiscriminate killing methods. Sarin was the primary agent used in the Ghouta attacks in Syria in 2013 in which killed over 280 people. President Obama had warned earlier in 2012 that the use of such weapons would be a ‘red-line’ that Assad should not cross. When the attack happened, Obama did not strike Assad because a process was brokered through the United Nations that all of the chemical weapons that Assad possessed would be removed by the UN’s Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, and that an inquiry would be held to determine who was at fault for the incident at Ghouta. The Inquiry found that although it was likely that the weapons used at Ghouta came from military stockpiles of the Syrian armed forces, it stopped short of saying that the Syrian military were the actual perpetuators of the crime. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons then, with the consent of all parties to the Syrian conflict, entered into Syria, collected all of the chemical weapons that were disclosed, destroyed them, and left.
It now appears that all of the chemical weapons were not handed over. Whether these were used by the rebels or the Syrian military is a matter of debate, although the weight of opinion suggests it is likely that the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was the result of the Syrian military. This is certainly the view of the Americans, British and French.
The problem is that to do an act of war such as President Trump has just done, the weight of evidence should be more than ‘likely’. It should also have been something that should have been done as a last resort.
However, there were other options on the table, as although tempers are running high at the Security Council in New York over this matter, a resolution calling for an independent investigation, to find out who was responsible, was possible. Why Mr Trump has short-circuited this process and acted now in such a deliberate manner is a matter of speculation.
The most pressing question from here is what happens next in the short term. For Bashar al-Assad, the option is to attack the 500 or so American troops in northern Syria helping with the attack on the ISIS held city of Raqqa. For Mr Putin, the choices are more nuanced. Russia is tied to Syria by a 1972 military alliance. It is this alliance which has been used as a spring-board for direct Russian intervention to prop up Assad. Even if Syria sees the American action as an act of war, this does not oblige Russia to do the same. Hopefully, Mr Putin will do what he does best, which is keep very calm in situations of stress, and serve his dish of revenge when it is cold. He last did this when a Russian aircraft was shot down over Turkey, subsequently breaking Turkey out of its close relationship to the United States and Europe. In this instance, it is likely that the Russians were informed in advance of what was going to happen, with a tightly orchestrated attack against those responsible for the action against Khan Sheikhoun, as opposed to other less related targets. Not to have informed the Russians, or to risk Russian casualties, could pull the two sides into direct conflict that could be cataclysmic.
Assuming that this conflict does not escalate and that Assad and the Russians accept the action without retaliating, the real problem for Mr Trump is what to do next ? Firing missiles is the easy part. Stopping weapons firing is much harder. Finding peace in Syria has been elusive since 2011. The fourth leg of the Geneva Peace Process recently concluded, with minimal progress. The same questions over what status Assad should have in any future government; what to do with terrorists; and whether the Kurds should have a separate homeland, continue to dominate the landscape. Without answering these questions there will never be peace in Syria. Mr Trump had earlier suggested said that the removal of Bashar al-Assad was not part of this priority. He was scathing of Mr Obama’s action in Syria and warned about conflict with Russia. Now, everything has changed.