US military commanders said the three-pronged strike on Bashar al-Assad’s regime had “attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon programme”.
But a day after President Donald Trump declared “mission accomplished”, it was unclear whether the Syrian leader’s chemical weapons’ production and storage sites had been completely destroyed.
“They have taken quite a beating,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the UK’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment. “His ability to use chemical weapons agents like sarin have probably been destroyed.
“But it’s just too early to say. He still has the capability to deliver chlorine and there’s limitless amounts of that about.”
Lieutenant-General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US joint staff, did not rule out the possibility that other chemical weapons sites still existed in Syria and that the weapons programme could be revived.
“I’m not saying they will not be able to reconstitute it, but this has dealt a very serious blow,” he said.
According to the Pentagon, a total of 76 cruise missiles smashed into Barzeh chemical weapons research and development facility in greater Damascus on Saturday.
Barzeh is viewed as critical to the Assad regime’s ability to develop and mix the chemicals required to make the deadly weapons that have been such a persistent feature of the seven-year civil war.
The other two sites, west of the city of Homs, were storage facilities where the precursor chemicals for the weapons were stored, US officials said.
Many in Syria’s opposition welcomed Saturday’s strike but worried they would not be enough to deter Mr Assad from using chemical weapons again, with his focus now switching to the rebel-held town of Idlib.
“We praise any American, British or French military intervention that could help punish the terrorist regime in Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies, for their continuous crimes,” said Mustafa Sejari, a senior Free Syrian Army representative in Aleppo province.
“We demand Washington and London continue attacking the regime until they put an end to its terrorism and killing machine, and to help us kick the Iranian militias and the terrorist Hizbollah from Syria.”
But the US and its allies have been clear Saturday’s strikes were not meant to change the direction of the war, only to cripple the government’s ability to use chemical agents to attack civilians.
Mr Sejari said that despite western condemnation of chemical attacks, “it seems very acceptable for the regime to continue killing Syrians with barrel bombs and air strikes and rocket launchers. This is unfortunate and unjustifiable.”
Syria publicly acknowledged that it had chemical weapons in July 2012. A year later an attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs killed more than 1,000 people.
Barack Obama, then US president, threatened military action against the Assad regime. The US backed down as part of a Russia-brokered deal that saw Syria pledge to give up its chemical arsenal.
In June 2015 the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons had been removed or destroyed, but allegations of attacks continued.
Syrian opposition activists have accused Assad of carrying out hundreds of chemical attacks. However, most of those used chlorine rather than sarin or other nerve agents.
While it is not illegal to possess chlorine, it is prohibited as a weapon and has been used with near impunity in Syria. The US and its allies believe chlorine was likely to have been used in the attack on Douma last Saturday, which they claim killed more than 70 people and triggered this weekend’s retaliatory strikes.
After the Sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the Syrian government suggested that a conventional bomb had hit a rebel chemical weapons cache, causing the 80 deaths. But there was little evidence that rebels ever possessed such a nerve agent or had the capability to produce it.
Chemical weapons experts also point out it is unlikely bombing a chemical weapons storehouse would set off a nerve agent. The components of a nerve agent are usually stored separately, to avoid accidental release.
With the Assad regime having repeatedly ignored international pressure, the question remains whether the Assad regime will now give up the use of chemical weapons.
According to a report issued by the White House following the strikes, the Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical attacks to make up for a “lack of military manpower, to achieve battlefield goals, and to compel rebel surrender”.
“Such use will continue until the costs to the regime of using these weapons outweigh any idea that they may provide military advantages,” the report concluded ominously.
Additional reporting by Asser Khattab in Beirut
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