Syria certainly looks to have used chemical agent in Khan Sheikhun. This instance is a really big deal for a number of reasons–and President Trump will need to act.
First, whereas Syria has been dropping chlorine in “barrel bombs” over the last two years, this case certainly seems to be military chemical agent—nerve agent sarin. That is a big step up from simply using a toxic but far less lethal industrial chemical chlorine. It means either they have retained hidden stocks of agent from what they turned over to the OPCW inspectors, or they have retained hidden production capacity. Both are gross violations for their commitment to the CWC and of course the use of CW is a war crime.
Reports from the site indicated that agent was from an aircraft. This means some sort of CW munition was used. For an agent like sarin, or even mustard, this requires a more sophisticated device and more elaborate procedure for use. Again, putting chlorine in a barrel bomb and rolling it out of a helicopter is one thing, but mixing and loading sarin or mustard in a munition and deploying it in an effective way is far more difficult. Imagine loading the munition with agent, transporting the munition to the aircraft, flying the aircraft to the target, launching the munition, and the munition has to detonate in the proper way to disperse the agent (in itself a tricky task). Achieving all this, with an agent that, unlike chlorine is orderless and can kill or incapacitate very quickly requires special procedures, protective equipment and probably special communications (that could be intercepted).
On the political side, this really sticks it to the Trump administration. If Basher al Assad did order this as seems highly likely, then he did it days after Washington has changed its policy to accept a Syrian outcome that includes Basher remaining in power. It happens as the international meeting in Brussels is considering how to rebuild Syria. It even puts the Russians in the uncomfortable position of having to defend Syria with transparent alternative facts.
So now we have the Trump administration responding with a statement by the president saying that use of CW by Bashar al Assad was reprehensible, and that it was the fault of Obama’s policies. That’s it? What happened to all the tough talk from the campaign?
It seems to this observer that if intelligence concludes as seems likely, that Syrian aircraft used CW agent, then its time to give real thought to dusting off the military options that were planned under Obama in 2013. Syrian airfields, runways and aircraft offer a commensurate target to the blatant violation by Basher al Assad. It’s complicated by the presence of Russian aircraft now. But perhaps it would be a good way for the Trump administration to distance itself from the aura of Putin.
This is the first real test of Trumps foreign policy verve. It will tell the world a lot how he responds.