After seven years of suffering, US-led raids crush Assad’s deadly arsenal

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A badly injured survivor of a chemical weapons attack in the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus. Reuters
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UN inspectors hold a bag containing testing samples from the site of an alleged chemical attack in Ain Tarma. Reuters
Updated 15 April 2018

After seven years of suffering, US-led raids crush Assad’s deadly arsenal

LONDON: The US military on Saturday insisted its missile strikes against three targets in Syria had dealt a “severe blow” to Bashar Al-Assad’s ability to produce chemical weapons.
American cruise missiles flattened a research center on the edge of Damascus and destroyed another site used as a command center and storage facility in the Syrian capital. French and British jets destroyed a facility near Homs and another at Shayrat.
The strikes significantly limited Assad’s ability to produce chemical weapons, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US military’s Joint Staff said, adding it would set back the regime’s ability to produce such weapons “for years.”
His confidence in the success of the mission and the assertion that the targets were the “heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons program, raised a broader question that goes to the core of the failure of Western policy on the conflict: How has the Syrian president been allowed to get away with repeatedly using poisoned gas on his own people?
Barack Obama first set his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in 2012. When that line was crossed in August 2013, a doomed attempt was launched by UN experts to rid the country of Al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
The futility of that exercise was fully exposed when dozens more died from symptoms similar to that caused by sarin, after an air raid on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province last year. Keen to act decisively in the way his predecessor had failed, Donald Trump ordered missile strikes on an airbase that were little more than a rap on the knuckles for the Syrian government.

Stockpiles
The ineffective policies of the two administrations were highlighted again in Douma last week with the all-too-familiar images of Syrian infants gasping for breath. Assad stands accused of the third major chemical weapons attack unleashed during the seven-year conflict, and countless reports of lower-level use of chemicals against civilians.
The Pentagon said yesterday that the missile strikes last year that damaged aircraft, hangars, and runways at the Shayrat airbase had targeted the “means of delivery”, while this time around they had gone after the main facilities of the program.
“I would say there is still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” McKenzie said. “I’m not going to say that they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it.”
Karl Dewey, an expert on chemical, biological and nuclear assessments at defense Jane’s by IHS Markit, said it remained to be seen if the strikes would deter the future use of chemical weapons.
“The US strike last April did not provide a consistent response to the on-going allegations and failed to deter chemical attacks,” he said.
Syria began stockpiling chemical weapons in the early 1970s, according to US assessments. With the help of the Soviet Union, Damascus started to gather the knowledge and materials to develop its own weapons in the 1980s.
Before the uprising against Al-Assad in 2011, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre was believed to operate at least four manufacturing plants for chemical agents, and dozens of storage facilities were built across the country.

Rocket attack
In 2012, Israel accused Syria of having one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, including sulfur, mustard, sarin and VX nerve agents.
A French military assessment from 2013 said Assad had a vast array of weapons systems that could deliver the chemicals. The section of the military responsible was the highly loyal “Branch 450” from the same Allawite religion as the president.
Syria’s horrifying capability was realized in August 2013, when an opposition-held area on the edge of Damascus was struck by rockets containing sarin. More than 1,000 people are estimated to have died in the strike on Eastern Ghouta. The US and other countries said they were certain the attack was carried out by Assad’s forces.
The red line set by Barack Obama had been crossed, but instead of a military response, a US-Russian agreement was signed to destroy the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons.
Assad’s government was forced to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
A year after the Eastern Ghouta attack, the White House declared that 581 tons of sarin and 19.8 tons of mustard gas had been destroyed under the OPCW’s supervision.
For the Syrian civilians still suffering the horrors of attacks using chemical weapons, it clearly wasn’t enough.


US considering troop boost to counter Iran

Updated 47 min 4 sec ago

US considering troop boost to counter Iran

  • A source has said Defense Secretary Mark Esper was considering plans to move between 5,000 and 7,000 troops to the Middle East
  • Tensions have risen sharply with Iran since Trump last year pulled out of a denuclearization pact and imposed sweeping sanctions

WASHINGTON: The United States said Thursday it was considering deploying fresh forces to counter Iran, with an official saying some 5,000 to 7,000 troops could head to the region.
Testifying before Congress, John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said the United States was “observing Iran’s behavior with concern.”
“We’re continuing to look at that threat picture and have the ability to dynamically adjust our force posture,” Rood told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A US official told AFP on condition of anonymity that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was considering plans to move between 5,000 and 7,000 troops to the Middle East.
The official did not confirm where the troops would be sent, or in what timeframe, but said that the deployment would be due to frustrations with Iranian-linked groups’ attacks on US assets.
Rood, under questioning, denied a report by The Wall Street Journal the United States was considering sending 14,000 more troops — equivalent to the number sent over the past six months.
Esper also denied the 14,000 figure in a phone call with Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the committee, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said.
US President Donald Trump later tweeted that: “The story today that we are sending 12,000 troops to Saudi Arabia is false or, to put it more accurately, Fake News!“
It was not immediately clear which report the president was referring to.
Tensions have risen sharply with Iran since Trump last year pulled out of a denuclearization pact and imposed sweeping sanctions, including trying to block all its oil exports.
In September, the United States said Iran was responsible for attacks on the major Abqaiq oil processing center in Saudi Arabia, a close US ally and Iran’s regional rival.
Riyadh then asked Washington for reinforcements, receiving two fighter squadrons, additional missile defense batteries, and bringing the number of US troops stationed in the Kingdom to about 3,000.
The United States has also been alarmed by an uptick in attacks on bases in Iraq, where major demonstrations triggered by economic discontent have also targeted Iran’s clerical regime and its overwhelming influence in its Shiite-majority neighbor.
“We’re lucky no one has been killed. There is a spike in rocket attacks,” another US official said.
“It’s clearly not Daesh. Everything is going in the right direction and it’s the right range,” the official said, contrasting Iranian capabilities with those of the extremist Daesh group.
Among the incidents, five rockets hit the Al-Asad Air Base on Tuesday, just four days after US Vice President Mike Pence visited US troops there.
Iran denied involvement in the September attack in Saudi Arabia, which was claimed by Tehran-backed Houthi militia.
The tensions come as Iran itself has faced major protests set off by a sharp hike in gas prices.