After nearly seven years of unrest and civil war in Syria, Assad’s chemical attack on the civilian population trapped in Douma, a city near the capital Damascus, no longer seems shocking; it was the action of a regime that is able to kill and maim with impunity.
The attack on the city followed negotiations which ended on 25 March with an agreement for a cessation of armed attacks, to allow for civilian evacuations. People were allowed stay, including members of the main rebel group there, HTS, on condition they became civilian police. 4,500 people were evacuated before the attack.
But on April 6, 2018 the heavy shelling of Douma which culminated in the two chemical attacks continued. 350 airstrikes were carried out in 48 hours. Syrian helicopters dropped 120 barrel bombs.
Assad did not need to use chemical weapons against the civilian population. The regime was on the cusp of taking control of this area and is in control of all but a handful of areas in the entire country. (Idlib in north-west Syria, is the largest area that is not under his control, and still has rebels who wants Assad replaced.)
The attack was about showing that his regime and his Russian and Iranian allies are in control and will not tolerate any dissent of any kind.
The small pockets of resistance to Assad are now dominated by the jihadists of Jaish al-Islam (HTS) who are unable to win the war. Meanwhile Turkey, the major backers of the Free Syrian Army, is focused on repressing the Kurds. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states know it is increasingly futile for them to back the various jihadist factions scattered across Syria.
Russia claims the attack simply didn’t happen, while the US, France and the EU condemned it.
As we go to press Donald Trump is threatening airstrikes against Assad and his allies in response. A targeted airstrike on 8 April, was probably carried out by Israel following missiles being launched from Lebanon. This was a warning to Iran not to set up military bases near Syria’s border with Israel.
Some on the left have questioned why Assad would launch such an attack when he is so close to victory. Those influenced by Stalinism and a desire to see Russia as a bulwark against US imperialism have even said that it could not have happened.
An inability to recognise and condemn the brutal nature of the Assad regime was reflected in the Labour Party’s woeful statement. That calls on “all those” who have used chemical weapons to be punished and describing the rebels in Douma as “occupying”. Those rebels are not friends of the left, women, the labour movement or minorities, but they are no more occupying than the regime is. Except of course, these rebels are not backed up by Russian jets and Iranian and Lebanese militias. The statement’s talk of meaningful dialogue to find a lasting political settlement is a fantasy. Assad has won the war and is celebrating his victory with a gruesome show of power.
The Labour leaders’ inability to squarely face reality mirrored Corbyn’s initial response to the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Sergei Skripal, when he refused to blame Russia for the poisoning and stressed that a third party could have carried out the attack.
Assad is now very likely to make more such attacks to enforce his grip on any area that has been a rebel stronghold. For seven years Syria has been the battleground for clashes of regional imperialist rivalries, with Russian and the US supporting their own chosen sides as and when they chose to.
The displacement of refugees both within Syria and outside its borders has caused a huge humanitarian crisis. This will, in the immediate future, get worse as Assad restores “order”.