The furore over whether or not the Syrian government used chemical weapons against Khan Sheikhoun and the US response in targeting the Syrian airbase at Shayrat continues to rumble on. Every explanation of why the government is guilty of a war crime is countered by explanations of how the attack was either ‘faked’ entirely, a ‘black flag’ attack to draw an outraged US militarily to the rebel side, or the result of government bombs striking chemical weapons munitions held by the rebels. The ‘truth’ of the matter seems to depend on whose side you are on, previously held beliefs about the legitimacy of the actors in the conflict, or the competing output of a ‘mainstream’ media versus ‘alternative’ media. The result is an unedifying debate, in which the discussion consists of ‘facts’ marshalled on two sides, ranging from the height of power in the UN Security Council, through competing pressure groups supporting both ‘sides’, to individuals tapping away on social media. An attempt by Bellingcat (see below) to cut through this has comments in the discussion that demonstrate the point. No sooner is a report produced concluding that the government was responsible than the counternarrative kicks in and robustly explains why it is wrong. The most recent report concluding that chemical weapons were used against Khan Sheikhoun has been released by Human Rights Watch on May 1st.
The reality of Syria’s civil war is that there are so many internal and external parties involved that it can barely be called a civil war at all. The government lost any pretence of legitimacy years before the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, along with swathes of territory which is now controlled by a disparate array of local actors, including the Kurds, an ill-defined opposition, groups linked to Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. The only thing that any of the rivals agrees on is that ISIS is a common enemy.
Drawing the line at chemical weapons use is a high bar to set and both the Syrian government and ISIS have been accused of using them. They are a despicable weapon to use, even against military targets, but then so are most weapons used in warfare. More conventional weapons such as mines and cluster bombs, which are also banned internationally, are indiscriminate and attract children and kill people even after a conflict has ended. The heavily improvised ‘barrel bombs’ of the regime and ISIS’s improvised explosive devices are also indiscriminate, as likely to kill civilians as they are military targets. Nor should conventional bombing by aircraft, a favourite of both the Russians and the US, be discounted. While the targeting capability of airpower has improved over the years, it is still a blunt instrument to apply and its true benefit is seen in reducing the casualties of friendly forces during combat. It is doubtful that the regime worries much about a stray bomb or two that keeps the opposition areas terrified and their defenders busy.
For more information regarding this week’s blog see:
Dr Carl Turner,