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How does the West react to Syria attack without causing World War Three?

One of the youngest victims from Saturday's suspected chemical attack. Credit: AP

As the US-UK-France triumvirate mulls over what to bomb and when, President Assad is using the time to put his military hardware out of harm’s way.

It’s obvious really. Many of his jets have been flown to Russian airbases near Damascus and around the coastal city of Latakia.

Air bases and chemical production facilities are undoubtedly at the top of the hit list being drawn up by western planners.

But while deep craters in runways may hobble Assad’s jets they’ll do nothing to ground the helicopters responsible for dropping the gas canisters that killed dozens in Douma last Saturday.

The carnage caused by the suspected chemical attack on Saturday has paved the way for the Syrian government to reclaim Douma - sparking wild celebrations as John Irvine reports.

It happened during a conventional bombardment. As one survivor told ITV News their choice that night was to stay in their basements and choke to death, or to go above ground and get blown to pieces.

The highest death toll occurred when one gas canister landed on top of an apartment building where all the residents were in the cellars.

As they smelled the heavier-than-air gas they naturally sought to climb out of the basement. But as they did so they met denser and denser fumes sinking within the building.

In another building, people were spared a similar fate because the gas cylinder dropped on it landed on a bed, which cushioned the fall and prevented detonation. Such is life… and death.

The West has moved its focus to Syria following Saturday's suspected chemical attack in Douma. Credit: AP

The Western Coalition is handicapped in several ways. While it wants to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, it doesn’t really want to topple his regime, because the alternative is unpalatable too.

Also, to avert World War Three, they must avoid killing Russians in Syria.

The Americans, British and French have bombed Syria a lot. But their targets have been the Islamic State, east of the Euphrates River.

There is only one country that has mounted a lot of sorties striking Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies west of the Euphrates. That country is Israel.

Smoke and explosions from the fighting between forces in Syria as seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Credit: AP

Always clear on their red lines, the Israelis have hammered any build-up of weapons or personnel they have deemed a threat. And they’ve done it without harming any Russians.

The allies will be trying to learn a lot from the Israelis.

I dare say we would all like something consequential to result from whatever form the strikes take. It can’t just be tokenism.

President Assad is winning the Syrian civil war. Slowly but surely he has been corralling all his enemies into the north-western corner of his country, Idlib province and part of neighbouring Aleppo province.

This area was supposed to be a safe-haven, but Assad doesn’t appear to respect that. When we visited Idlib in January, Assad was attacking villages from the air with conventional bombs and with gas.

A UK aircraft takes off from a royal air forces base in Cyprus on Friday as Theresa May decides on whether the UK will launch military strikes. Credit: AP

Since then the Turks have been setting up bases in Idlib in some sort of land grab and in the hope they can pacify the place. The population in Idlib has swollen from around one million, five years ago to about two and a half million today.

Those people have either been dumped there aftersurrendering elsewhere. Or they have fled there to escape the war.

If the war isn’t to follow them Assad needs to be persuaded to leave the area alone. With the Turks doing their thing on the ground something needs to be done to keep the Syrian air force from massacring the people now crammed into what they hoped would be a sanctuary.

The establishment of a no-fly zone could be the answer. Such zones over northern and southern Iraq were very effectively maintained by the RAF and others in between the two Gulf Wars.

If north-western Syria was turned into a proper sanctuarythen the end to the civil war would be in sight.

And after years of dithering, the triumvirate would have at long last done something about Syria… something good.