U.S.-Led Strikes in Syria—What Was the Point?

U.S.-Led Strikes in Syria—What Was the Point?
AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File
U.S.-Led Strikes in Syria—What Was the Point?
AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File
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Depending on who you ask, the joint U.S., British, and French airstrikes on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program last Friday was either a smashing success or cosmetic symbolism devoid of a wider strategy. The Trump administration is describing the limited military operation as the actions of a bold president who enforces his red lines. The Pentagon is just as pleased with the operational details of the strike. According to Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, the United States military is “very confident that we have significantly crippled Assad's ability to produce these [chemical] weapons.”

In pure operational terms, the missile and air attacks on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities—a research laboratory in the greater Damascus area and two buildings on the outskirts of Homs—were successful. The targets were destroyed with what appears to be minimal collateral damage, a testament to the extreme care military officials in Washington, Paris, and London took during the planning phase. 

Go beyond the military lens, however, and the infamous “mission accomplished” phrase Trump used on Twitter is much less definitive. Other than hitting a few buildings that Bashar al-Assad may very well have emptied out before the strike, what did the U.S. and its allies actually accomplish?

The strike last weekend sought to meet two objectives simultaneously: punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against civilians while sending a resounding enough message to Assad that dropping chemical munitions in the future would result in more punitive damage to his war machine. While there is no question that using force against Assad satisfied the western appetite to “do something,” it is an entirely open question whether the operation will succeed in deterring Damascus from leveraging its chemical weapons program again.

Indeed, this is not the first time the White House believed it sent a strong warning to the Syrian dictator—in April 2017, two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea launched a volley of 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield, believing that this show of force would make Assad think twice before touching his CW stockpile in the future. The regime essentially ignored that warning and utilized chemical weapons several months later. 

As has been pointed out repeatedly in the days since the attack on Syria’s CW program will not have an impact on the trajectory of the conflict. Confident of Russian and Iranian military support on the ground and in the air, Bashar al-Assad is in the strongest position he has ever been since the war began over seven years ago. In fact, for the Syrian regime, the chemical assault unleashed on Douma was worth the price of a small-scale precision attack from the West. Hours after the gas was employed, the armed group that previously resisted Syrian army’s offensives for five years surrendered the suburb, boarded buses, and drove hours north towards the Turkish border. 

At this stage in the conflict, Damascus does not need to use chemicals to vanquish what is left of opposition-controlled territory. The United States could theoretically destroy Syria’s entire chemical program, and Assad would still be able to win the war with conventional munitions. In the eighth year of this conflict, the armed resistance against the regime is petering out, with jihadists factions far more powerful than their less extremist rivals.

If the punitive U.S. strike will not have an impact on the war or degrade Assad’s military —a development that would ironically lengthen the conflict and result in more misery for the Syrian people—what was the strategic impetus behind Trump’s decision? 

The administration has argued that the strikes were justified because enforcing the chemical weapons convention and preventing these heinous attacks from happening is a vital U.S. national security interest. It is a compelling and understandable claim to make, but one that also places the United States in the very difficult position of responding to every single suspected gas attack that may arise in any conflict in any part of the world. What happens, for instance, if the Sudanese government—a regime that, however repulsive from a moral perspective, has become a counterterrorism partner— is documented to have deployed chemical weapons in Darfur, a remote region of Africa where the U.S. has little if any strategic interest? Is Washington now expected to fire more munitions at more Syrian targets after every chlorine attack, no matter how small? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” the U.S. military will cease to be the U.S. military. Rather than defending the American people and supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States as stated in the oath of enlistment, U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines will transition into super-cops, intervening wherever and whenever something terrible happens, even if of U.S. security and prosperity are not affected.

The White House will continue to talk up the operation against the Syrian regime as a successful exhibition of American military power. But we should be clear about what drove the decision to launch military action against Assad in the first place: an overwhelming, emotional, and reactive urge to respond to disturbing images. 

This bias towards action will undoubtedly make us feel good for a few days. But besides our emotional state, nothing else will change. The war in Syria will go on, and the end result —a victory for Bashar al-Assad— will be the same.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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