5 takeaways on U.S. strikes in Syria
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.