WARNING: This contains graphic photos of the attack. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns lays out the range of options the Trump administration has available to it in response to the Assad regime's reported use of chemical weapons in Syria. AP
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military has grown dependent on the use of chemical weapons to battle rebel groups and it is unlikely that last week’s attack by U.S. and allied forces will completely deter his army from using the weapons in the future, analysts say.
“This is now part of their standard combat doctrine,” said Gregory Koblentz, a chemical weapons expert at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The attack April 7 that triggered the U.S.-led retaliatory strikes forced the surrender of a rebel group holed up in a suburb of Damascus. “It changed the course of battle on the ground,” Koblentz said.
Assad’s military, which is backed by Iran and Russia, has difficulty defeating rebel groups when they are in well-defended positions in densely packed cities or neighborhoods.
Chemical weapons, which can be delivered from helicopters, artillery shells or grenades, often indiscriminately kill or inflict horrible injuries on everyone within a targeted area. Such devastation could break the will of rebel fighters and turn civilians in the area against the rebels.
In Douma, rebels agreed to leave the area within hours of the attack April 7.
“It’s effective in compelling surrender,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “This is a regime that is willing to destroy the entire country rather than lose power.”
The U.S. military, along with France and Britain, fired 105 missiles against three chemical weapons facilities in Syria on Saturday. The Pentagon said it severely crippled the country’s ability to produce the banned weapons.
“We took the heart of it out,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said after the strikes.
The Trump administration warned that any use of chemical weapons would trigger another attack.
The Pentagon acknowledged that Syria's chemical weapons capability was not destroyed. “There's still a residual element of the Syrian program that's out there,” McKenzie said.
The attack was limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not designed to topple or weaken Assad’s grip on power in the country.
The risk of a limited attack is that the regime knows it can absorb the punishment.
After the attack, Assad backers flooded the streets in Damascus in a demonstration of support to the country’s armed forces.
Though the attacks probably damaged Syria's ability to mass-produce deadly chemicals such as sarin, a nerve agent, they wouldn’t affect the government's ability to use chlorine, which can be legally purchased, and other chemicals may be stored in warehouses that weren't struck. The U.S. military avoided hitting targets that could send clouds of deadly gas into the air.
Syria’s armed forces could resume using small amounts of chemicals that could be delivered by grenades. “They’ll try and stay below the red line,” Koblentz said.
That was the pattern after the United States struck Syrian targets a year ago in retaliation for a chemical attack. Syria’s military has used chemical weapons at least eight times since then, according to the United Nations, often in small quantities.
The Pentagon said Saturday's allied attack used double the missiles of the previous one, but analysts said that may not deter Assad's regime since using chemical weapons keeps government casualties on the battlefield down.
“Assad likely concluded that the cost of American airstrikes was lower than what he would have paid in Douma,” Cafarella said.
Assad’s military has been severely depleted after seven years of civil war, and the regime depends heavily on Iranian and Russian military assistance.
The use of chemical weapons proves to Assad’s core supporters that he is willing to go to great lengths to remain in power, Cafarella said.
“Assad is deliberately creating a psychological effect,” she said.
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