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On Syria: What We Know And What We Don’t Know


With the news on the recent attacks in Syria, and President Trump’s policy shift towards Syria, Richard Wagner gathers the relevant facts to help put this in perspective.

There was definitely a rocket launched on the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib.  We also know that at least 70 people are dead, and there is footage of people suffering from symptoms of a sarin gas attack.  That death toll is likely increasing as this very article prepares for publication.  As of now, this is all that we can be sure of in the attack on Khan Shaykhun.

In response, the US Government and many others hold the Syrian government responsible, and President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on Shyrat Airfield.  59 Tomahawk missiles were fired.  According to Sec. of State Tillerson, this was the very airfield “that delivered this most recent chemical attack.”  

Lastly, we also know that sarin gas is very easy to procure.  In 2001, George Musser with Scientific American was able to legally obtain by delivery all of the ingredients needed to make sarin gas.  We also know that ISIS has access to US weapons and can make their own rockets.

What we know about the Syrian people

There are roughly three powers within Syria:  The Assad Government, ISIS, and the newly formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.  The Free Syrian Army still exists but has deteriorated into obscurity.  In a war-torn country, it is difficult to gage public opinion, but in July 2015, an ORB poll was released, which was conducted by face to face interviews.

This poll showed that 47% of respondents view Assad’s leadership as a “positive influence”, which is higher than for any of the other forces in Syria, including the Free Syrian Army (36%).  If that number still holds true, then removing Assad from power would go against the will of the largest portion of the Syrian population, though just 3 points shy of a majority.

The media frequently speak of “the rebels” in Syria, often sympathetically.  But who are these rebels?  Other than ISIS, the largest rebel group currently is Hayat Fahrir al-Sham, which is made up of former Al Qaeda groups, mainly Al Nusra.

Furthermore, a study by The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has found that roughly 60% of the rebels in Syria identify with some kind of radical Islamist ideology similar to ISIS.  Clearly, this 60% is of the rebels, and not the nearly half of the Syrian population that supports the Assad regime.

What we don’t know

We don’t know for sure if sarin gas was involved.  The evidence strongly suggests that it was, but we are not yet sure.  

We don’t know who actually orchestrated the attack on the Khan Shaykhun area.  If there really was sarin gas involved, we don’t know if it was the same forces who launched the rockets.  

Russia promised to take control of Assad’s chemical weapons, but we don’t know if Russia has honored their agreement.  

We also don’t know if the last sarin attack in 2013 was actually made by the Assad regime.  Various news sources claimed that it was, but journalist Seymour Hersh reported,

British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal.”

This does not prove Assad’s innocence, but it does raise reasonable doubt.  

Lastly, we don’t know how “regime change” in Syria would unfold.  If the Assad regime were removed, there is no plan to replace it with any stable government.  The Free Syrian Army was considered in the past but is barely existent anymore.  Therefore, we don’t know what would fill the power vacuum if Assad were removed from power.

The possibilities

First, the people of Khan Shaykhun were almost certainly exposed to sarin gas, and the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons is currently on a “fact-finding” mission to determine if this is true.  As explained earlier, it is not difficult to procure sarin gas.  

Consider that the civil war in Syria has turned very much in favor of the Assad regime.  Furthermore, President Trump’s initial Syrian policy was to avoid confrontation with the Assad government and focus on the defeat of ISIS.  This follows nearly a decade of US politicians calling for regime change.  The US Presidential election, therefore, would have been another victory for Assad.  Assad, therefore, had far more to lose from using sarin gas, which would, as we are seeing, cause President Trump to change his position on Syria.

ISIS could certainly procure sarin gas and does benefit from any US attacks, military or diplomatic, on the Assad government.  However, ISIS is a primary target of the US, and provoking the US to intervene against Assad would likely also bring the might of the US military down on them.

The newly formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, however, remains below the radar of both the US government and the U.S. based media.  As they are losing the war, US intervention against the Assad regime would benefit this group.  However, they do run the risk of being caught, which would hurt their popularity with the Syrian people.

So, we know lots of people are dead in some kind of chemical attack, and we know that Trump authorized a strike against a Syrian air base in response. All else is speculation, some with more merit than others.



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About the author

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is not talking politics, Richard is an aspiring novelist, and culinary hobbyist. Richard holds MSc from London School of Economics in Political Science.


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