After air strikes, what happens now in Syria? What we know so far

On Saturday, April 7, I awoke to catch a breaking story on CTV’s news channel. It was being reported that a chemical weapons attack had been carried out in a rebel held town in Syria.

Veteran news anchorman Brad Griffin deadpanned a warning to viewers that the video images they were about to see were “graphic and disturbing.”

The shaky footage depicted a number of individuals animatedly washing the alleged victims with water hoses. None of them were wearing any form of gas mask or protective clothing.

Speaking at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council Saturday, hours after the U.S., France and the U.K. launched missiles intended to take out Syria’s chemical weapons capability, American Ambassador Nikki Haley called on Russia — the main backer of the Syrian regime — “to take a hard look at the company it keeps.” Her Russian counterpart Vassily Nebenzia retorted that the U.S. and its allies were engaged in the “diplomacy of myth-making.”

One young girl about three years old was crying loudly — as would any three-year-old being doused vigorously with cold water. One helper is shown holding another toddler face down while he forcefully gave him thumps on his back as though to dislodge a food particle stuck in the young lad’s throat.

While not graphic, it was certainly disturbing to see such a clumsy attempt to portray the aftermath of a chemical weapon attack. Further footage showed a rebel — this time wearing an old gas mask, but still without a hazmat suit, pointing at a 225-kilogram unexploded barrel bomb that was lying on a single bed amid some plaster and debris.

While I cannot disprove the allegation that this was a chemical bomb dropped by the Syrian air force, I can state with some authority that it must be one hell of a sturdy bed frame.

A 225-kilogram projectile dropped from an altitude which would have at least allowed it to reach terminal velocity, penetrates a ceiling without detonating and then gently comes to rest on a small cot? That seems like one hell of an unlucky break for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. We know that he uses barrel bombs, so he must be the one to blame. Case closed.

EU threatens new Syrian sanctions but no clear Russian target

Which brings us to the next question, which is, why would Assad resort to the use of chemical weapons? And why now? The targeted area was the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma, which at the time of the alleged gas attack was under the control of radical Islamist rebels, and heavily besieged by Assad loyalists. Backed by the Russian military, the Syrians had the upper hand in Douma and were negotiating a ceasefire with the extremist rebels.

That truce subsequently did take place last Thursday with the Islamist fighters relinquishing control of the town to Syrian and Russian forces in exchange for re-location to another rebel-held region of Syria.

Syria Strikes Lock US and Russia Into a New Era of Animosity

So, on the verge of a battlefield victory, why would Assad be so stupid as to employ the one weapon which almost guarantees the condemnation of the world? It also seems rather short-sighted to hurl barrel bombs full of chlorine gas and nerve agents into an area that you know your own soldiers are about to occupy.

If oil hits $80, theres a lot more at play than airstrikes in Syria

Although no independent investigation has been conducted, Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, has claimed: “We definitely have enough proof.” French President Emmanuel Macron echoed the claim, saying he too has “proof”, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May concluded it was “highly likely” that Assad is to blame for employing chemical weapons at Douma.

U.S. President Donald Trump took to the Twittersphere to warn Russia that American missiles will be “coming” against the Syrian military in retaliation for the alleged gas attack. That threat became a reality with a series of missile strikes against Syrian targets on Friday night.

Just to recap what we need to swallow in order to accept the presumption of Assad’s guilt and Russia’s complicity: 1) A group of Syrian Islamist extremists is on their last legs and about to capitulate. 2) Unable to restrain his urge to kill his own people, Assad unwisely drops barrel bombs of toxic chemicals on the rebel enclave. 3) The victims include children, which naturally incenses the civilized world. Remember nobody gave a rat’s when the U.S. dropped the mother-of-all-bombs on Islamist extremists in Afghanistan because the U.S. assured us that no innocent children or family pets were killed in the blast.

So, essentially, the U.S. are now assisting Syrian Islamic extremists in their efforts to punish Assad, who is allied with nuclear superpower Russia. And at the epicentre of this potential apocalypse is one unbelievably strong bed frame.

The recent displacement of civilians and rebel fighters from the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta signals an important victory for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the face of these successes, it is worth remembering that the imminent downfall of Assads regime was proclaimed several times since the onset of violence in Syria in late 2011. Each time, Assad defied such predictions. How has his government, which several times looked so close to being toppled, weakened its rivals and ensured its continuity?

In a new article, we argue that a crucial component of the Assad regimes wartime success has been its strategic use of aerial bombardment. Bolstered by its allies, especially Russia, the Assad regime has consistently targeted public infrastructures in opposition-held areas, including bakeries, hospitals, markets and schools. Media outlets, policy experts and international aid organizations have written about the humanitarian and military dimensions of such raids at great length. Yet they overlook the key political logic underpinning these systematic attacks.

Our findings suggest that regime concerns with rebel governance, rather than military calculations or sectarian motivation, best explain the Assad regimes targeted bombardment of opposition-held areas. It also helps us understand the regimes ongoing success in the war.

From 2013 to 2016, we conducted more than 100 interviews with civilians, activists, journalists and aid workers to explore how the regimes aerial bombardment campaigns affected various rebel groups attempts to govern. We found that during the conflict, carrying out basic statelike functions, from mediation to education — what we term performing the state — has been one of the most important governing strategies undertaken by rebel groups. At the same time, the Assad regime actively targets these institutions and services to undermine and defeat rebels that seek its downfall.

State performances by opposition forces make political authority tangible, perceptible and concrete to local residents. During the war, rebel groups have established checkpoints that control the movement of people and goods, taxed local businesses, founded courts to resolve local disputes, coordinated agricultural production and organized schooling. In contexts where sovereignty is so hotly contested, such actions can help legitimize opposition actors. When executed successfully, they demonstrate an ability to govern proficiently and allow residents to consider an alternative to the Assad regime.

Throughout the Syrian civil war, rebel attempts to perform the state have been frequent, deliberate and purposeful. One of the most important of these everyday practices has been the provision of welfare. In addition to aiding the livelihoods of local residents, service provision works to build community by signaling membership in a polity.

Welfare in Syria has an especially strong association with the state because of the Assad regimes interventionist development model. Beginning in the 1970s, the Syrian government provided its citizens various forms of social welfare, including free health care, education, subsidized food and utilities. This was part of a tacit social pact in which public goods were provided in exchange for political compliance. The legacy of this unstated agreement remains potent to this day.

Rebel efforts to provide bread and medical support — two services that have strong symbolic resonances in Syria and were frequently mentioned in the interviews we conducted — in opposition-controlled areas are hardly surprising. In the province of Idlib, they remain a crucial terrain for producing legitimacy and popular support for rebel groups to this day.

Conversely, the Assad regime has sought to disrupt these performances. By systematically annihilating the administrative institutions and public services that shape rebel-civilian relations, the Assad regime has delegitimized its competitors and prevented the emergence of coherent alternatives. Targeted aerial bombardment is especially effective in this respect. It works by not only inflicting military, financial and psychological damage but also interrupting and undermining everyday practices through which rebels generate local support and consolidate their rule.

Over the past three years, this tactic has allowed government forces to consolidate their control over strategic areas, while displacing local populations and concentrating opposition forces in designated towns and provinces. Most important, it has prevented the stability required to build alternatives to its governing institutions.

Today, the Assad regime and its allies continue to relentlessly bomb the province of Idlib, one of the last rebel holdouts in the country and the destination of the population recently expelled from East Ghouta. Our findings suggest that the political logic undergirding this counterinsurgency tactic is subtler than it first appears.

These bombing campaigns strive not just to destroy military outposts or slaughter helpless civilians. They seek, through targeted demolition, something more crucial to the conflicts trajectory: preventing the rebels aspirational attempts to govern from becoming full-fledged state performances. And while civilians continue to pay the price, it seems unlikely the regime will stop until any potential alternatives to its governance are put down.

Brent Eng is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. 

José Ciro Martínez is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

World at Twitter: