President Donald Trump’s authorisation of missile strikes on the Shayrat airbase in Syria last week has divided opinion. For some, the action was a proportionate response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For others, it is a strategically meaningless move that may serve to escalate the Syrian conflict rather than bring it closer to a resolution. How one assesses the effectiveness of the strikes is largely dependent on the context in which they are being judged.
Viewed in strict terms of chemical weapons deterrence, the missile strikes represent a minor success and allowed the Trump administration to show that, unlike the Obama administration, it was willing to act. The Assad regime’s sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta in August 2013 was a critical event in the conflict’s development. For the Obama administration, the subsequent deal that was struck with Russia to decommission the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal was a success. White House officials argued that the deal checked the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and also avoided the US being drawn in to an open-ended military intervention.
However, the regime began to violate the US-Russia deal from April 2014 onwards through the use of chlorine bombs. In Autumn 2016, a UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons commission found the regime responsible for three separate chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015. But deliberative and ineffective attempts through the UN Security Council failed to punish the regime for its direct violation of the US-Russia deal. A British-French led draft resolution that proposed economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions on the regime petered out in January 2017 before reaching the Security Council, where Russia would have almost certainly used its veto in any case. Those who criticize last week’s missile strikes on the grounds that the Trump administration did not follow due process must accept the failures of previous attempts of enforcement through the UN Security Council.
The perceived weakness of these attempts may well have led the regime to conclude that the use of nerve agents in Khan Sheikhoun would elicit a similarly weak response, particularly in the week following comments by senior officials in the Trump administration which moderated the language around Assad’s future. But it has proved a miscalculation.
President Trump’s decision to authorize the missile strike was the first time that Syrian army infrastructure had been directly struck by the US (while at least 15 Syrian army soldiers were killed in a US airstrike in September 2016, the US insists this was a mistake). In a conflict where the absence of enforcement mechanisms is regularly blamed for the failure of ceasefires and diplomatic initiatives, this precedent is significant. While they lacked a UN mandate, the missile strikes were targeted, limited and proportionate, delivering a message that the Trump Administration would not accept the use of chemical weapons. As a result, it is unlikely that the regime will use nerve agents again, knowing that the US will effectively be obliged to respond in greater force.
The missile strikes are, however, no substitute for a strategy towards the Syrian conflict as a whole, which the US continues to lack. And, taken in this broader context, the missile strikes are by no means a game-changer. They will not significantly impact the balance of forces on the ground, and are unlikely to herald a step change in US policy towards Assad’s overthrow. The danger is now that the recriminations between the US and Russia escalate, and the US and its allies commit the same mistakes as they have in the past by using bellicose rhetoric that they are unwilling to back with action. This would turn a minor victory into a strategic failure.
Here, the fear has long been that any token Western military intervention would beget further escalation from the regime’s more committed backers, Russia and Iran. For example, in the event of a major retaliation in the form of a regime offensive on Idlib (that uses the same brutal tactics as the 2016 offensive on Aleppo) one could argue that the missile strikes made things worse not better. But there are no easy answers. It must also be acknowledged that there are also significant costs associated with inaction. A weak response to the use of chemical weapons would have surely seen the regime continue to use them.
Thus, while it is true that the targeted strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons do not bring a political solution to the Syrian conflict nearer, they do make it clear that use of one particularly egregious form of weaponry won’t go unpunished. The Trump administration now needs to focus on developing its strategy to pursue a settlement.
Tim Eaton, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.
This article was originally published by Prospect.