LONDON – U.S. President Donald Trump has spent a lot of time in the courts, so he must be familiar with the legal concept of “cui bono” — “who benefits?” When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed. But he certainly did not apply that principle when deciding to attack a Syrian government air base with 59 cruise missiles early Friday morning.
The attack against Shayrat air base, the first U.S. military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in six years of civil war, was allegedly a retaliation for a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun three days before that Trump blamed on the Syrian regime. But who stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?
There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in territory controlled by al- Qaida in Idlib province, is not near any front line and is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.
Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria they would lose everything. (Only a few days before the chemical weapons attack, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that removing Assad from power was no longer Washington’s priority.)
Al-Qaida — and probably several other rebel groups — have access to chemical weapons. The country was awash with them before the war, because the ability to make a mass chemical weapons attack on Israel was Syria’s only deterrent against an Israeli nuclear attack. (Assad, and his father before him, understood clearly that Syria would never be allowed to have nuclear weapons of its own.)
Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control. So of course the rebels have had some for years, and are known to have used them on occasion in their own internecine wars. Would al-Qaida have hesitated to use them on innocent civilians in order to trigger an American attack on the........