Over the weekend, the United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, launched a series of airstrikes on particular, specific targets inside Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. President Trump tweeted, “Mission Accomplished!” and heads of the various nations involved celebrated their action.
The question is whether it accomplished anything.
That’s a controversial proposition. The Guardian (UK) explained:
The cruise missiles fired by the US B1-B Lancer heavy bombers, French Rafales and UK Tornados GR4s – as well as from frigates in the Mediterranean – were among the world’s most modern. They had ranges of hundreds of kilometres, designed to be fired from a distance to avoid the risk of aircraft being targeted by Syria’s largely Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile systems. … As a demonstration of military firepower, it appears to have been as staged (with ample prior warning to Russia and, in that case Syria as well, as France admitted) as it was extremely limited in its scope, leaving most of the Syrian military’s key assets untouched.
Now, it’s true that the United States warned Russia in order to avoid escalating the conflict. But it’s also true that giving that warning undercut any notion that the United States has a long-term strategy to counter Russian or Iranian ambitions in Syria. And there’s no question that Assad must be pleased today: he lost relatively little, he’s still in power, and the combined forces showed that their willingness to take heavy measures is in serious doubt. Furthermore, Assad’s chemical weapons strike worked: Assad successfully cleared Douma, with rebels agreeing “to a deal with the government to hand the area over and be bused to another outside government control in the country’s north. Thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives are expected to leave soon.”
This means that Assad now has an easy calculation to make every time he considers chemical weapons use: is it useful, or is it not? This time, it was obviously useful.
Which puts the onus on the United States to create a policy. We didn’t have one under President Obama, and we don’t have one under President Trump, and firing off a few missiles obviously isn’t achieving its desired effect (see April 2017). With that in mind, here are a few questions we need to actually answer.
1. Do We Care About International Norms Surrounding Chemical Weapons? One of the arguments for intervention in Syria is that if we do nothing to reimpose the Obama red line in Syria, chemical weapons use will become more common. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that if someone attacked Americans with chemical weapons, we would end them. Furthermore, not all chemical weapons are the same: some are indeed weapons of mass destruction, but others are not as dangerous in scope as cluster bombs. Do the 500,000 dead in Syria’s civil war care whether they were killed by Russian cluster bombs or sarin gas?
2. Do We Care About Checking Russia? Russia has regional ambitions it seeks to forward with the Iranians. The United States could ensure that Russian and Iranian ambitions are checked by strengthening the anti-Assad regime in northern Syria, as well as providing diplomatic and political cover for the Israeli air force to strike targets in Syria that facilitate ties with Iran. Furthermore, the United States could announce a policy that they will be striking any airbase used in a chemical weapons attack, and will offer no prior warning, thus putting the Russians on notice. But are we willing to risk the blowback from such action?
3. Do We Care At All? This is a serious question. What is America’s interest in Syria? Beyond the first two questions, the answer would seem to be: no. But every time we see ugly pictures from places around the world, the public clamor for action is deafening. Americans can’t have it both ways: either we’re the world’s police, which comes with cost, or we’re not, so we shouldn’t complain about ugliness happening elsewhere. We’re going to have to pick.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with foreign policy. We have a moral compass that directs us toward interventionism, but we then turn on intervention at the first available opportunity. We must decide where we stand. That's the purpose of the Constitution's declaration of war clause, allowing a fulsome debate in Congress rather than knee-jerk response from the executive. But the public aren't the only ones split on Syria: so is Trump, who is apparently split between fully pulling out of Syria (which would be disastrous) and intervening whenever news pops up on his radar. One thing is clear: in the confusion, Assad gains, as do Russia and Iran.