The missiles flew and the skies over Damascus and Homs lit up briefly on Friday night as the Americans, British, and French attacked from the air what they identified as important targets on the ground in Syria related to the chemical weapons program of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
We don’t know if Assad is laughing, but he might well be.
President Donald Trump announced gravely on television that the attack was aimed to punish “the crimes of a monster.” But monsters don’t respond to limited strikes like this. Indeed, what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And for this tyrant who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands over the last seven years, the penalty described by American officials on Friday night was akin to a ticket for jaywalking.
The targets chosen—a research and development center in the capital, and command and control and storage facilities elsewhere—might be crucial if Assad were waging a sophisticated offensive using chemical weapons, and if his regime were teetering on the brink of collapse without them. But neither of those things is true.
The fact is, thanks to massive intervention by Russia and Iran, Assad has been winning his war in the populated west of Syria without the use of chemical weapons. Conventional bombs and relentless artillery barrages, along with Shiite militias and Russian mercenaries, have done the job. Taking away what little chemical capacity Assad has left will not change that.
Such was the everpresent confusion in the U.S. administration that barely an hour after the president announced “we are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents”—a very limited goal—Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “this wave of airstrikes is over,” strongly implying the operation is as well.
More importantly, neither Mattis nor Trump, nor their allies in Britain and France, appeared able to confirm that the chemical agents used in the Damascus suburb of Douma last weekend, killing more than 40 people, were the kind of sophisticated nerve agents that Syria claimed to have surrendered and destroyed five years ago.
The only chemical the three powers appear fully confident identifying in the Douma attack is chlorine, an industrial chemical that is banned as a weapon, but very commonplace as an industrial and even household chemical. (You smell it when you swim in a public pool or pour bleach in your washing machine.)
While some of the symptoms of the hundreds stricken and the dozens who died in Douma suggest they may have been the victims of a nerve agent mixed with chlorine, thus far there has been no clear evidence presented to confirm that.
Reports from Damascus earlier in the week quoted people on the street saying they don’t think Assad would have used chemical weapons in Douma because his ferocious shelling of the suburb already had achieved its goal: driving out the last fighters of the Saudi-backed Jaish al Islam militia.
That being the case, why would Assad have attacked Douma with a chlorine cocktail dropped in crude barrel bombs?
One obvious reason, no doubt endorsed by his Russian and Iranian allies, was to test Trump’s resolve and gauge its severity. The result: thunderous rhetoric and minimal damage.
At best, the U.S.-led attack may deter Assad from using chemical weapons against refugees and rebels who, defeated elsewhere, have been driven north to Idlib province.
At worst, it shows Assad and his patrons that the Trump administration has no stomach for regime change or a confrontation with Iran, or much less Russia, and has no strategy that might actually bring the war to an end.
It is altogether possible that, having flexed American military muscle, Trump will return to the position he took earlier this month, that it’s time for U.S. troops to get out of Syria. It’s a battlefield that’s just too complicated, too dangerous. And as long as Assad doesn’t use chemicals to kill dozens, he can go on killing his people on the battlefield, in their homes, and in his prisons by the tens of thousands.