The international community has now had several hours to respond to the coordinated strikes on Assad regime targets in Syria carried out on Friday evening by the U.S., France, and the U.K. Generally speaking, the responses are about what you’d expect considering the source(s).
First and foremost, Assad himself is going to couch this in terms of “the terrorists” (a name he and Sergei Lavrov use for anyone in Syria who isn’t with the regime).
“The West struck Syria because it realized it had lost control and credibility,” Syrian state media reported, citing a call between Assad and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The attack will only increase Syria and the Syrian people’s determination to continue fighting and crushing terrorism on every inch of the nation’s soil”, he added.
For anyone who hasn’t kept track of Sryia’s civil war (and you’d be forgiven for not understanding the intricacies of it because it is surely one of the most convoluted affairs in military history) the town at the center of this month’s chemical attack is rebel-held Douma (it’s in Eastern Ghouta, just outside of Damascus), where 80 or more people were reportedly killed last Saturday.
That was the latest escalation in renewed fighting between regime forces and the Army of Islam. Last week, we encouraged you to go and read up on Zahran Alloush, who was killed in 2015. A truce between the government and the group collapsed earlier this month and heavy fighting had already left dozens dead ahead of the chemical attack. The history of the Army of Islam is important here and it speaks to how the various rebel factions who have fought Assad for control of the country since the civil war began have made it easy for the Assad regime and Moscow to brand them “terrorists”.
For instance – and this is something you might have seen passed around on social media by right-wing and/or pro-regime agitprop accounts over the last week – the Army of Islam once put prisoners in cages and paraded them through the streets of Douma. Ostensibly, those prisoners were regime army officers, all members of Assad’s Alawite sect. But included in the procession were women and children and while the Army of Islam claimed that placing the cages in the streets and on rooftops in Douma was an effort to dissuade the Assad regime from further shelling of the area, the optics weren’t great:
— 🇧🇷 Sumeri 🇧🇪 (@IraqiSecurity) November 1, 2015
As you can see from the time stamp, that’s from November 2015. Zahran Alloush was assassinated less than two months later in airstrikes that initial reports suggested were carried out by Russian war planes. He was backed, at various times, by the Saudis.
So that’s some background on the area where the chemical attack in question occurred and it underscores how easy it is for Assad and Russia to simply say “everyone’s a terrorist”. Everyone is in fact not a “terrorist” and while I’m not defending the Army of Islam or any other Sunni rebel faction in Syria, what I would say is that Assad and Lavrov’s various attempts to draw a false equivalence between ISIS and everyone who isn’t the regime, is dubious.
The YPG are obviously an entirely different story and the amusing thing about them is that the only person who thinks they’re “terrorists” is Erodgan, who has never met a “good” Kurd.
Ok, getting back to the international response, Putin is irritated with the coalition strikes. He called the attack by the U.S. and allies an “act of aggression against a sovereign state which is in the front line in the fight against terrorism.” He also said it’s “in violation of international law” and called the chemical attack in Douma “just a pretext,” because “Russian experts found no proof of [the] attack”. Imagine that.
Putin was right about one thing in his comments on Saturday. He said the “U.S.-led strikes will worsen [the] humanitarian crisis in Syria” – it’s hard to argue with that because you know, it’s just more fucking bombs. But if Putin wants to talk about worsening the humanitarian crisis in Syria, maybe he should mention how his air force helped make an already hellish situation in Aleppo immeasurably worse in late 2015 when Moscow and Hezbollah and the IRGC were busy helping Assad turn the tide.
Russia is calling an emergency meeting of United Nations Security Council to discuss the attack.
Khamenei called the allied strikes “a crime” and the IRGC said U.S. actions “gave the resistance front a more open hand” to react. You can bet Qassem Soleimani has been doing all manner of back channeling on Saturday.
China’s taking the usual approach, saying Beijing “always objects to the use of military force when issues emerge in international relations”. That’s according to Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. Right. That is of course unless they’re say, building islands in the middle of the ocean and someone tries to fly over and have a look at what the PLA might be doing, in which case Beijing will threaten to go to war, but you know, other than that, China “objects to the use of military force”. The foreign ministry also said “any unilateral military moves that go against rules set by the United Nations could complicate the Syria problem and the UN should be used as main forum for finding a solution.” To be clear, China hasn’t exactly been helpful when it comes to the situation in Syria, so that’s a bit disingenuous.
Merkel was measured. Her statement sounded very carefully worded. “We support that our American, British and French allies, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have taken responsibility in this way,” she said, adding that “military action was necessary and appropriate to safeguard the effectiveness of the international ban on the use of chemical weapons, and to warn the Syrian regime of further violations”. Note how everything in there is hedged. She also said “Germany will resolutely support all diplomatic efforts”.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Saturday that the country would not be participating militarily. “This is not the role that we — in coordination with our partners — want to play in this conflict”, Maas told Spiegel.
European Council President Donald Tusk is all aboard. “Strikes by U.S., France and U.K. make it clear that Syrian regime together with Russia & Iran cannot continue this human tragedy, at least not without cost,” he said, adding that “the EU will stand with our allies on the side of justice.”
Amusingly, Russia also claims Assad’s Soviet-era defense systems performed well under pressure. “Syrian forces, using air defenses originally delivered by the Soviet Union, intercepted 71 of 103 cruise missiles fired in attack by U.S. and allies on Syria,” one Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, said at a briefing. He also noted that Russian air-defense systems weren’t engaged because the missiles didn’t enter the airspace of Russian bases. Clearly, that was on purpose. And although Russia is fired up about how that Soviet equipment held up, Moscow is now considering selling Assad some of those sweet ass S-300s. You’ve got to love the use of the term “selling” there. I mean, how the fuck is Assad going to pay for those? What Russia really means is, “we wanna try these S-300s out, so we’re going to give him some of them.”
So that’s apparently that, for now. Remember, whether they admit it or not, Russia is hamstrung here in terms of options. Russian assets were pummeled this week as the latest round of U.S. sanctions rippled through FX, equity, and debt markets. If the Treasury were to go the “nuclear route“, Russia would be proper fucked. Additionally, the U.K. is still furious over the spy poisoning. Bombast aside, Putin is the furthest thing there is from a moron. Unlike Trump, Putin really is some semblance of a “very stable genius” so he’s not going to do anything that would risk bankrupting his oligarch friends and/or destabilizing the currency further and/or risk incurring the wrath of Steve Mnuchin (and yes, that’s funny) vis-à-vis Russian government debt.
Who knows, maybe Putin can smooth things over by sending a few pissing hookers to the White House. After all, Russia has “the best in the world”…