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Western strikes on Syria, turning point that never was

An image grab taken from a video released by the Syrian civil defence in Douma shows unidentified volunteers giving aid to children at a hospital following an alleged April 7, 2018 chemical attack on the rebel-held town
AFP

Beirut (AFP) – Unprecedented Western strikes against regime targets in Syria yielded a lot of political chest-thumping but no hope that the seven-year war would end soon or even claim fewer civilian victims.

On April 14, the United States, France and Britain fired missiles meant as a response to what the trio of nations said was evidence Damascus had used chemical weapons a week earlier.

Meanwhile, international inspectors on Friday had yet to begin their probe at the site of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, amid concerns that its security was not guaranteed and that evidence had been removed.

Purported footage of victims foaming at the mouth after the April 7 attack sparked an outcry and prompted the West to launch its biggest military action yet against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

A bullish US administration hailed the strikes as a success and argued a clear message had been sent to the Damascus regime that the use of chemical weapons would no longer go unpunished.

“If Assad doesn’t get it, it’s going to hurt,” the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said.

French President Emmanuel Macron also claimed that the missiles could have a major diplomatic impact, achieving what analysts saw as an attempt by the West to reclaim a seat at the table after staying aloof.

Russia, Damascus’s top ally, was warned of the strikes and many analysts said the Syrian regime had ample time to hide its chemical stockpile.

The Western trio at the UN Security Council had emphasised the need to bridge the rift with Russia, which is the main broker in the conflict but whose peace initiatives have also failed.

– Diplomatic stalemate –

Russia has instead reaffirmed its alliance with Turkey and Iran and is still alleging that the April 7 Douma attack was a Western-engineered fabrication to justify strikes.

That claim has gained considerable traction in global public opinion thanks to a relentless campaign by Russian media and a network of pro-Russian social media accounts.

After a week of trading threats and recriminations, UN ambassadors will try to find some common ground during a three-day retreat starting Friday at a farmhouse in southern Sweden.

A voice often drowned out by the bluster that preceded and followed the strikes, was that of Syrian civilians.

On a wall in the northern province of Idlib, graffiti artist Aziz al-Asmar had these words for Trump: “Your strike is like a rooster’s fart.”

Opposition supporters felt short-changed by the Western strikes, arguing that they may have assuaged Western consciences but had been a mere slap on the wrist for Assad.

“Everyone has disappointed us, everyone has sold us out,” said Ahmed, a 25-year-old mechanic from Douma, who was evacuated to northern Syria with thousands of other civilians days before the attack.

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said all the United States and its allies had achieved was to uphold a norm on the non-use of chemical weapons.

“This had nothing to do with killing people — it only had something to do with how you kill people,” he said.

– ‘Not about us’ –

Barrel bombs and other munitions dropped by the regime on Douma and the rest of Eastern Ghouta resulted in much higher death tolls but triggered no Western action against Assad.

Echoing comments by US and British officials, Macron admitted that the strikes “don’t necessarily resolve anything” but were important “for the honour of the international community.”

Exiled Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, whose wife went missing in Douma in 2013, saw that as particularly offensive.

“It’s not about us, it’s not about protecting our lives and saving Syrians from brutality,” he told AFP in Madrid, arguing Western nations mostly want “to regain some of their prestige”.

Nearly a week after their arrival in Damascus, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had not yet been able to access Douma and investigate the site.

Their UN security assessment team came under fire this week and officials at the OPCW have also said that key evidence had probably been removed by Russian and Syrian forces.

Syria’s resurgent president, whose job hung by a thread earlier in the conflict, appeared determined to press on with his Russian-backed military recovery.

The rebels who had resisted a Russian-brokered transfer deal in Douma said it was the alleged chemical attack that forced them to accept and flee their hometown.

Since then, other rebel factions in pockets around Damascus where opposition armed groups had been allowed to stay under a 2016 reconciliation deal have also been deported.

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