5 take­aways on U.S. strikes in Syria

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS / OPINION - Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokol­sky Aaron David Miller, a vice pres­i­dent at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars, is a former State De­part­ment ad­viser and Mid­dle East ne­go­tia­tor. Richard Sokol­sky, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie En­dow

Fri­day night’s U.S., Bri­tish and French mis­sile strikes against three sites as­so­ci­ated with Syr­ian chem­i­cal weapons will not change the bat­tle­field bal­ance in Syria, bring us closer to end­ing Syria’s vi­o­lence, or per­haps even de­ter Bashar As­sad from us­ing chem­i­cal weapons.

What was the logic then, par­tic­u­larly in view of the hype and buildup lead­ing up to the at­tacks? What were they de­signed to ac­com­plish? And are we now locked into a for­ever war in Syria? Here are our pre­lim­i­nary take­aways:

❚ Mat­tis rules. Per­haps the most im­por­tant take­away was that in Trum­p­land, Sec­re­tary of De­fense Jim Mat­tis still dom­i­nates the de­ci­sion-mak­ing on mil­i­tary force. If re­ports that some were push­ing for more com­pre­hen­sive strikes are ac­cu­rate, then Mat­tis won this round. No doubt the mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Bri­tish and French — both of whom were look­ing for a tough but nar­row re­sponse that would not trig­ger Rus­sian and Ira­nian es­ca­la­tion or drag them into Syria’s civil war — helped strengthen Mat­tis’ hand.

❚ To pun­ish and de­ter As­sad. The at­tack was de­signed to achieve two lim­ited pur­poses — pun­ish As­sad for his use of chem­i­cal weapons against in­no­cent civil­ians; and de­ter the strong­man from launch­ing new chem­i­cal weapon at­tacks by de­grad­ing his ca­pac­ity. The pres­i­dent and his ad­vis­ers likely con­sid­ered a broad range of goals — crip­pling the As­sad regime’s broader mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties; at­tack­ing Rus­sian and Ira­nian forces to al­ter the bal­ance of forces on the ground; and in­creas­ing U.S. lever­age to ne­go­ti­ate a com­pre­hen­sive peace set­tle­ment that would force As­sad from power. These am­bi­tious — and riskier — ob­jec­tives, which would have more deeply en­meshed Amer­ica in Syria, were re­jected in fa­vor of a re­strained re­sponse that was fo­cused on hurt­ing Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons in­fras­truc­ture.

❚ Mis­sion ac­com­plished? It is pre­ma­ture to de­clare, as the pres­i­dent tweeted, “mis­sion ac­com­plished.” The U.S. mil­i­tary re­tal­i­a­tion last year to As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons did not de­ter the regime from con­duct­ing mul­ti­ple chlo­rine gas at­tacks. But the tar­gets de­stroyed Fri­day night — re­search, de­vel­op­ment and stor­age fa­cil­i­ties — were cen­tral to As­sad’s chem­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties. That said, As­sad be­lieves he is in an ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle for his sur­vival and the sur­vival of his regime, and he is de­ter­mined to re­assert the govern­ment’s con­trol over all of Syria.

❚ Un­sub­stan­ti­ated as­sump­tions. It’s not clear from the De­fense De­part­ment brief­ings whether ad­di­tional U.S. strikes would be used only if As­sad uses chem­i­cals again; whether that ap­plies only to the use of cer­tain agents like sarin or to chlo­rine; and whether the United States might strike pre­emp­tively if it dis­cov­ers ei­ther prepa­ra­tion for a chem­i­cal at­tack or if in­tel­li­gence ex­ists on new stock­piles of chem­i­cal agents. The logic ap­pears to be that these strikes will set back the Syr­ian chem­i­cal pro­gram; that As­sad won’t use them again; and that the Rus­sians will pres­sure him not to do so. None can be sub­stan­ti­ated now.

❚ In­con­ve­nient truths. Crit­ics of this ad­min­is­tra­tion and its pre­de­ces­sor have ar­gued that the United States needs a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy to end Syria’s civil war, and that Wash­ing­ton must play a lead­ing role. The re­al­ity is that this ad­min­is­tra­tion has a pol­icy, but it’s min­i­mal­ist and is largely fo­cused on de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion and de­ter­ring As­sad from us­ing chem­i­cal weapons. But the in­con­ve­nient truths are As­sad and his al­lies have won the war; Amer­ica lacks the lever­age to al­ter the dy­nam­ics of war and peace in Syria; our in­ter­est in Syria is not nearly as vi­tal as As­sad’s, Rus­sia’s or Iran’s; and the United States is un­will­ing to take own­er­ship of putting this bro­ken land of Syria back to­gether again.

The bot­tom line is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tives in the land of lousy op­tions. This ad­min­is­tra­tion, like the last one, has no in­ten­tion of get­ting stuck with the check for Syria.

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