In what’s becoming an annual tradition, the Syrian regime launched new airstrikes against rebel targets just a day after being struck by U.S. missiles as punishment for the use of chemical weapons. According to the Wall Street Journal, citing the White Helmets rescue group, regime planes conducted 28 strikes in the countryside around Homs and Hama on Sunday, including on civilian areas, followed by an artillery barrage. The attacks ended a few days of rare respite from airstrikes on rebels and civilians, because the Syrian regime had moved its assets to safer locations last week in anticipation of the U.S.-led strikes. Coming just after Trump declared “mission accomplished,” Assad’s unchallenged resumption of bombing underlines one of the implicit messages of the U.S. strikes: that the Trump administration and its allies are fine with letting “animal Assad” conduct his war as he sees fit, so long as he stops short of using chemical weapons.
The Syrian regime was certainly working to give the impression that it hadn’t been set back by the allied strikes on three chemical weapons–related targets. The Syrian presidency’s official Twitter account posted video of Assad arriving for work the morning after. On Monday, state TV broadcast a rally of hundreds of Syrians demonstrating in support of Assad’s forces.
The diplomatic dispute also continued over the weekend, with the U.N. Security Council rejecting a Russian resolution condemning the strikes by three members of that council as an act of aggression. A team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is in Syria to investigate the incident in Douma last weekend that prompted the U.S. strikes, with Assad’s regime continuing to deny that chemical weapons were used. The U.S. envoy to the OPCW has accused Russia of tampering with the site. The regime took full control of the former rebel bastion, just hours after the alleged chemical attack.
In one possible shift in the conflict, deterring chemical weapons use appears to have been added to the already murky mission of U.S. ground forces in Syria. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told Fox News on Sunday that Trump has three goals in Syria: to deter chemical weapons use, defeat ISIS completely, and “watch what Iran was doing.” She said, “it is all of our goal to see American troops come home. But we’re not going to leave until we know we’ve accomplished those things.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also took credit for convincing Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria as punishment for Assad’s chemical weapons use. This doesn’t quite add up. Trump had agreed to keep U.S. troops in Syria for the time being, despite his earlier reluctance, several days before the chemical weapons attack, but it’s possible that he’s now less inclined to remove them. Either way, it’s not really clear what these troops have to do with Assad’s chemical weapons. They’re based in the Kurdish-controlled territory in Northern Syria, fighting ISIS alongside allies who are themselves, to some extent, cooperating with Assad.
For the most part, the conflict in Syria seems to be settling back into its destructive normal state. The attention of both the regime and its enemies is now likely to shift to the Northwestern Idlib province, still under the control of both jihadists and the Free Syrian Army, where rebels and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been relocating from other areas of the country recaptured by the regime. France’s foreign minister warned over the weekend that there could be a “new humanitarian disaster” if the regime now moves to retake the region. From an international perspective, the question now is whether the U.S. and its allies will launch follow-up airstrikes if Assad tries using chemical weapons again.
History suggests that sooner or later, he will, but even if he doesn’t, the killing is set to continue.