Until this weekend, it was possible to believe, if you didn’t look too closely, that the Syrian civil war was grinding to a halt.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s autocratic President, talked as if he were a victor and pursued what seemed like a final Russian-backed ground war against rebels outside Damascus. The terrorist army known as Islamic State had been beaten into near-obsolescence in Syria’s east. In the north, anti-Assad rebel militias had fallen into infighting and Turkey had long devoted its energies to defeating anti-Assad Kurdish forces rather than Mr. al-Assad’s army. The United Nations-assisted rebuilding of Damascus was under way in a city that no longer felt like a place at war. And President Donald Trump had pledged to withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria, reversing earlier U.S. insistence on Mr. al-Assad’s ouster and leaving the country’s fate to Assad-supporting Russia and Iran.
It had always been a false victory. Mr. al-Assad was not going to be a viable leader capable of restoring Syria, even after a total military victory.
That fact became grotesquely clear on Saturday night, when people in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma began falling to the ground, foaming at the mouth, choking and suffocating. At least 500 were hospitalized and the death toll is said to be approaching 100, including children and infants. The chlorine gas canisters found on the ground in Douma were studied by independent analysts and found to be identical to those dropped by Syrian air force helicopters in gas attacks on other towns in 2016, 2017 and earlier in 2018. (Saturday’s chemical attack coincided with the anniversary of U.S. air strikes launched in retaliation for a similar 2017 attack).
The international outrage over Mr. al-Assad’s return to committing crimes against humanity with banned weapons of mass destruction led to an immediate return to threats of international military confrontation. Mr. Trump, in an angry tweet, effectively reversed his earlier position, denounced Russia and Iran for backing “animal Assad” and called for Syria to pay a “big price.” France pledged to retaliate, following its zero-tolerance policy on Syrian WMD use. And early Monday morning, a Syrian military base also used by allied Iranian forces was hit with air strikes, said by informed observers to be Israeli in origin.
There are signs that further retaliatory attacks, including by the United States, may be forthcoming. Tom Bossert, Mr. Trump’s Homeland Security adviser, was asked on TV Monday morning if a missile attack was forthcoming; he answered: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table … We’re looking into the attack at this point.”
Whatever the eventual response to this atrocity, and however brief it may be, it should now be even more clear that any rehabilitation of Mr. al-Assad and any attempt to “end” the Syrian civil war on his terms will be undermined, perhaps permanently by the Syrian president’s use of long-forbidden weapons to terrify his own people into submission.
Mr. Trump’s attempt to declare the U.S. role in the war over – which would have effectively handed Syria’s fate to Russia and Iran – was one of the first victims of Saturday’s atrocity.
Republican Senator John McCain went so far as directly blaming the chemical attack on Mr. Trump’s statements. Mr. Trump’s “pledge to withdraw from Syria has only emboldened Assad, backed by Russia & Iran, to commit more war crimes in Douma,” Mr. McCain wrote on Twitter, urging the President to “make Assad pay a price for his brutality.”
Any victory won or declared by Mr. al-Assad at this point is illusory – a hold on territory that can be sustained only by committing atrocities and continued military attacks by more powerful armies from abroad.
To glance at a map of the current status of the Syrian conflict, Mr. al-Assad’s regime and its allies may appear poised for victory. Most of the central, southern and western parts of the country are now held by government forces. Islamic State’s holdouts have been reduced to dwindling patches bordering Iraq. The main anti-Assad rebel group, Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), holds a half-dozen small territories in the north and southeast of the country, and some suburban areas to the north and south of Damascus. Most of the northeast is controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia, which supports anti-Assad rebels but is now under attack by Turkey and allies including Russia.
However, as the world learned on Saturday, much of Mr. al-Assad’s hold on the regime-controlled territory, and most of his gains in freeing this territory from rebels, have depended on mass brutality and the threat of chemical-weapons atrocities – actions that will render his leadership of any supposedly consolidated Syria untenable.
After having committed the most onerous and forbidden humanitarian crimes against his own people, Mr. al-Assad and his regime will not be able to hold legitimate power, even in the Damascus area, without constant terror – and he will not be able to function as a member of the international community with these atrocities on his record. If nothing else, this latest chemical attack has stripped any illusions of victory from the world’s view of Syria.