15 Apr Strikes Spare Assad’s Conventional Arsenal
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, meets with Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Damascus on April 12.
BEIRUT—Syria’s government retains its ability to conduct its most lethal attacks on rebels and civilians, even after the U.S., France and Britain launched missile strikes that the Pentagon said disabled the regime’s chemical-weapons capabilities.
While chemical-weapons facilities were the target of the military strikes, President Bashar al-Assad’s main tool of war has been conventional arms such as rockets, barrel bombs and mortars.
Those have caused the vast majority of more than 400,000 deaths in a seven-year civil war and helped him win back large parts of the country. By contrast, chemical weapons have killed fewer than 2,000 people, according to activist and human rights groups.
The U.S. and its allies made it clear the strikes weren’t meant to deter Mr. Assad’s conventional army but were a one-time retaliatory strike a week after a suspected attack with chlorine and a nerve agent killed 43 people in the city of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.
The Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons repeatedly during the war, charges it has denied.
“Unfortunately the American strike was a message to the regime that it can continue killing with all kinds of weapons except for chemical,” said Mustafa Sejari, a commander with the U.S.-backed Mutasim Brigade rebel group based in northern Syria.
With its grip on power tightening, Mr. Assad’s regime tried to showcase a country going about its daily business.
Hours after the missile strikes, a nine-second video of Mr. Assad walking into work, briefcase in hand, was posted on his Twitter account, garnering over 1 million views. In Damascus, pro-government rallies were held in the streets with convoys of vehicles waving the Syrian flag. In Homs, Syrians flashed the victory sign and crowded the city’s vegetable markets.
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U.S., British and French forces struck sites associated with Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities on Friday. Video footage shows the missile launches and resulting damage. Above, a Syrian soldier films the damage. Photo: AFP/Getty
Regime forces on Saturday took full control of Douma, where rebels who until last week controlled the city said the suspected chemical attack prompted them to surrender and withdraw. Syrian state media showed Saturday regime soldiers and security forces driving past bombed out buildings and waving the Syrian flag.
In a call reported by Syrian state media, Mr. Assad told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Western powers launched the strikes because “they have lost control and credibility in front of their people and the world.”
U.S., British and French officials labeled the strikes a success. At around 4 a.m. local time, over 100 missiles struck three targets, sending booming explosions resounding across Damascus’s hills.
U.S. military officials said the three targets struck Saturday morning are all directly connected to the regime’s chemical-weapons program and arsenal—which it was supposed to have relinquished years ago as part of a deal to avert U.S. airstrikes in 2013.
They included a scientific research center used to develop and produce chemical and biological agents and a chemical-weapons storage facility, according to the Pentagon. The third target contained both a chemical-weapons storage facility and military command post.
“This is going to set the Syrian chemical weapons program back for years,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie at a Pentagon news conference on Saturday. Of a facility in Barzeh, near Damascus, he said: “It does not exist anymore. They’ve lost a lot of equipment. They’ve lost a lot of material.”
The U.S. fired the majority of the missiles against Syria in this weekend’s attack.
Source: Department of Defense
Syria’s state media said its air-defense systems had intercepted 13 incoming missiles, but acknowledged that a research center north of Damascus had been hit, and laboratories and a building used for teaching had been destroyed. It reported that three civilians had been injured. Gen. McKenzie called the Syrian antimissile effort “largely ineffectual.”
Such focused strikes seem unlikely to alter the course of the conflict, which has turned largely in favor of the Assad regime ever since Russia intervened on its behalf in late 2015, according to opposition leaders.
The strikes are also unlikely to deter the Assad government forces’ deadliest form of warfare: airstrikes from its numerous military bases. The regime launches rockets from airplanes and drops barrel bombs from helicopters. It has launched these weapons indiscriminately at markets, schools and hospitals.
Before and during the strikes, the U.S.-led coalition—which is focused solely on battling Islamic State militants—told rebel groups that it backs in Syria that the attack shouldn’t be interpreted as a shift to war against the Assad regime. About 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Syria to defeat the extremist group.
The U.S. coalition feared “we will attack the regime as well,” said Muhannad al-Talla, the commander of the Pentagon-backed Maghawir al-Thawra group based in eastern Syria.
Muzahim Salloum, a former spokesman of the Maghawir group, said he was sent a similar message to relay to rebels, which he did via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
“We are not at war with regime forces,” the message he relayed on behalf of the coalition read. “Do not attack regime forces. If anyone attacks regime forces you will not be supported by the coalition forces.”
The U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the U.S. coalition operations in the Middle East, declined to comment.
—Nazih Osseiran in Beirut contributed to this article.
Write to Raja Abdulrahim at email@example.com