‘Gas!’ Bodies piled up grotesquely in a stairwell. No sign of injuries. A father cradles two small children. Still, pale as ghosts. A doctor says the victims died suffocating, foaming at the mouth. One man declares: ‘I could feel my lungs shutting down.’ Babies getting hosed with water in a makeshift hospital. These words and images from the Syrian town of Douma filled the rolling news channels on Monday. They capture the peculiar terror and moral repugnance of chemical weapons … if it is true, as reported, that these weapons were used.
One viewer in particular was glued to cable news, as is his habit: Donald Trump. He quickly tweeted that ‘Animal Assad’ — the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad — would have a ‘big price to pay’ … ‘SICK!’ Later, his cabinet gathered around him, he was in full statesman mode: Commander-in-Chief, wartime President. As ever, it is worth quoting Trump at length when he speaks without a script. ‘We are here to discuss Syria tonight. We’re the greatest fighting force anywhere in the world. These gentlemen and ladies are incredible people. Incredible talent, and we’re making a decision as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus … and it will be met forcefully … but we are developing the greatest force that we’ve ever had.’
Journalists at the cabinet photo-op weren’t interested in Trump free-associating about the US military’s ‘incredible talent’. ‘Did you have an affair with Stormy Daniels?’ This wasn’t as crass as it might have seemed. According to the Washington Post, Trump has been obsessively flicking between coverage of Syria and another breaking story: FBI raids on the offices of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Cohen had paid off a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump. ‘Why don’t you just fire Mueller?’ another reporter asked. Trump replied: ‘Well, I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation … And many people have said you should fire him.’
This has fuelled speculation that Trump was moving so quickly on Syria to create the right moment to get rid of Robert Mueller, who leads the inquiry into whether Trump’s election campaign conspired with Russia. Americans may be reminded of Bill Clinton’s ‘split screen presidency’ when CNN literally had missiles arcing up through the night sky towards Iraq in one half of the picture while Clinton denied allegations about his sex life in the other. Now, one half of the split screen carries a bewildering succession of tabloid stories from Trump’s reality TV presidency: Stormy Daniels versus Russia; half a dozen other women alongside Mueller, porn and poison gas, the war against the FBI and the war against Syria.
Some doctors at the scene have blamed chlorine gas; others Sarin nerve agent. Assad agreed to destroy all stockpiles of Sarin in 2013, when he was threatened with bombing by President Barack Obama. If the regime did use Sarin in the Douma attack, then Assad lied. Or, as a leading Republican hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, put in on a Sunday morning talkshow when Syria’s dictator was last accused of using Sarin a year ago: ‘Here’s what I think Assad’s telling Trump … F you.’
Chlorine has many civilian uses and so was left out of the 2013 agreement, a crucial loophole. If this is what’s behind the choking, suffocating deaths in Douma and, again, if the regime is responsible, this would be the biggest chlorine attack by government forces of Syria’s civil war. The regime — and the Russians — deny it. They blame the Islamist rebels in Douma, saying that such a ‘provocation’ was being readied ever since it became clear the rebels were about to lose the town.
The question now is the same as that in 2013: why Assad would do the one thing most likely to bring about a US attack on his power. Perhaps this was done by a unit commander or local warlord? One recent visitor to the government side in Syria told me he was shown a document saying military units could deploy chemical shells only if the order came directly from the President. If that is true, Assad could be vulnerable to an international war crimes prosecution.
Yet it may be that the Syrian military dropped chlorine bombs in Douma because this is simply business as usual. Human-rights groups have produced credible reports of as many as 200 uses of chlorine gas by regime forces over the past few years. None as lethal as Douma, these passed with little comment from President Trump’s Twitter feed. Does anyone doubt that a regime busy torturing to death thousands of its citizens in prison is capable of killing civilians indiscriminately with chlorine? Certainly not Donald Trump.
The strike — if it comes — will be big. Last year, 59 missiles were fired at a single airfield. President Trump will have to do more than this, or he risks looking foolish. Last year, there had been a plan to hit all of the main Syrian airfields but I’m told this was blocked by the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis — a voice of caution in the administration despite being affectionately called ‘Mad-dog’ when he was a Marine Corps general. Something like this plan might be revived this time, with British and French involvement, too. But while missile strikes will make the cable-viewer-in-chief and others feel a little better after the harrowing images from Douma — cruise missiles as therapy — they are no substitute for an actual strategy. What will President Trump do the day after?
The big thing that has changed since 2013 — the first time the regime is alleged to have used chemical weapons — is that Assad has now almost completely routed the opposition. Douma, just outside the capital, Damascus, is almost the last place in rebel hands. Assad had given people there a choice: surrender or be put on buses to the distant northern province of Idlib. ‘We are being ripped away from our roots,’ said one opposition supporter in Douma, a doctor. He also thought that as long as Assad was in charge, no opposition supporter would be safe.
And will America stand in the way of an Assad restoration? Before winning the election, Trump was an isolationist. He campaigned against nation-building, regime change and costly foreign military adventures. In 2013, when Obama seemed about to bomb for the same reason as today — chemical weapons — Trump issued more than a dozen tweets telling him to ‘stay out of Syria’. The capitals are Trump’s: ‘TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!’
As President, Trump initially seemed comfortable with Assad remaining: the regime was fighting Isis, after all. But he never announced that he was reversing the Obama policy. Then came the alleged Sarin attack last year and a US missile strike that no one would have guessed at, given everything Trump had said before. Did that mean regime change was once again US policy? Senator Graham asked that question of the US commander in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel. It was an astonishing exchange. ‘I don’t,’ Votel replied hesitantly, ‘I don’t know that that’s our particular policy at this particular point …’ Graham then replied: ‘Well, if you don’t know, I doubt if anybody knows, because this is your job, to take care of this part of the world.’
Presumably, this is one of the urgent questions to be decided between Trump and his generals. Nicholas Heras, a Washington analyst with good links to the White House and the US military, said the new policy would probably be to ‘break Assad’s legs’. No one, it seems, tells the Donald ‘F you.’ Under this plan, Assad would be hobbled, as Saddam Hussein was hobbled after the 1991 Gulf war. ‘Trump is developing a consensus within his cabinet on the way forward. You can’t just do a one-off strike. It has to be strikes that cut deep at the security state of Bashar al-Assad — and which would make Russia feel the pain.’
Could one option be to introduce permanent no-fly zones in Syria where the regime’s writ does not run, just as in northern Iraq from 1991 to 2003? But this might imply a long-term commitment of US troops, even nation building in those areas given over to the opposition. It was only last month that Trump said the US was pulling out of Syria ‘very soon’: ‘Let the other people take care of it now.’ Trump’s base wants him to stick to that. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his show that only ‘Islamist crazies’ would gain from bombing. ‘Overthrowing Assad’s regime would result in chaos, the genocide of Syria’s Christian community and the deaths of American troops.’
Trump could face bigger problems than sniping from Fox. If the attacks are as big as expected, it may be difficult for the Russian forces, there supporting Assad, to get out of the way. Russia has warned it will shoot down American missiles. Trump tweeted in reply: ‘Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart”! You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!’ The prospect of World War Three starting in Syria now seems less far-fetched than it once did.
Trump’s attitude to Russia is another puzzle of the past few days. Not so long ago, he was strangely reluctant to criticise Vladimir Putin for anything. Now, he rushes to say that Russia’s leader was personally responsible for Assad’s ‘crimes’. This was evidence that Trump was not a Russian agent, his supporters tweeted, ‘collusion’ with the Kremlin a hoax. Alternatively, it might be that Trump is an emotional man, driven by instinct as much as logic. ‘It was a personal and visceral reaction to the images coming out of Douma,’ said Heras. ‘This has become a grievance against Assad and Putin. He said, “Don’t do it again.” It’s personal now.’
But if it’s personal, the reaction may last no longer than a news cycle. If Trump now responds with a huge strike, then walks away — a ‘fire and forget’ policy — then last week’s attack will serve to demonstrate that Assad’s position as Syria’s dictator is now assured. The country would be carved up: the regime in Damascus, the rebels in a northern enclave. The rebels, anyway, are divided among themselves, fighting each other as much as the regime — there is no government in waiting for the US to support. It is a formula for perpetual war, no end to the fighting. Poor Syria. The only certainty is that many more civilians will be killed.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation.
Paul Wood and James Forsyth on Syrian war games.