President Donald Trump announced air strikes, while saying that the US does not want to maintain an “indefinite” presence in Syria.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced air strikes on Syria by declaring that they were not about “intervening in the civil war or regime change.” She said they were limited and targeted strikes.
The US and France have both stressed that this is a limited action, and in so doing indicate that the momentous air strikes on Syria are not a version of “shock and awe,” the term Washington used in 2003 when announcing the attack on Saddam Hussein.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis characterized the more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Syria as a “one-time shot” and said that “right now we have no additional attacks planned.”
In Paris, Emmanuel Macron said the strike was limited to hitting the “Syrian regime’s capabilities to produce and use chemical weapons.”
This proportionate, limited and targeted response sends a message to Russia that the three Western allies do not want a wider war. It also allowed Moscow to save face by not requiring it to get deeply involved.
For instance, British warplanes operating from the RAF Akrotiri base in Cyprus but did not enter Syrian air space. CNN reported that people on the ground found the strikes had less impact than they had initially thought. Strikes hit two facilities in Homs that were storage facilities. The Syrians claimed that most of the missiles were intercepted. Syria, unsurprisingly, claims that civilians were injured when cruise missiles went off course. A scientific research center on Mount Qasioun in Barzeh near Damascus was struck. This facility was hit previously in May 2013 by air strikes that Syrian rebel groups told Reuters were carried out by Israel.
Reports on Saturday claimed that there were no Russians present at the two facilities or other locations hit and that this was a key factor in the planning and execution of the raid.
IT IS UNCLEAR how the operation will dissuade Syria from using chemical weapons. The fact that the French Defense Ministry has said that Russia was warned about the strikes shows that much of the attack was telegraphed and almost scripted. This gave plenty of time for Damascus to move men and material away from these areas.
Given that the UK has said it is not interested in regime change, that leaves Bashar Assad with the confidence that he can move forward. After the chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7 the regime forces came in, clearing out Syrian rebels from the area that had been struck. So the regime accomplished what it wanted; the use of chemical weapons is merely a small part of its strategy.
The US, UK and France have responded with a similar small and limited attempt to stop that one part of the strategy. This is designed to enforce the redline and prevent what Paris called the “trivialization” of the use of chemical weapons.
The narrowly defined targets – research facilities, storage, brigades involved in the attacks and air bases – don’t seem to really degrade the forces involved. The strikes were also designed to send a message of deterrence.
Is the regime deterred? It appears that it will now certainly be more careful as it knows that Western powers are watching. But the regime has mostly achieved its major goals of pushing the rebels into pockets in the north and south.
By pushing the rebels to the periphery the regime has consolidated its control over the heart of its power in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, the historic cities that make up modern Syria.
The rebels in the north exist within a Turkish-backed umbrella that protects them from Syrian regime assault. Iran, Russia and Turkey have largely agreed to the Turkish presence in the north in recent months. In the south the Syrian rebels receive assistance from Jordan and some are also in contact with Israel, according to foreign reports. In the east the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly Kurdish-led, are partnered with the US.
“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria – under no circumstances,” Donald Trump said in a statement Friday. He said he wants to bring America’s warriors home. “No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East.”
The message for Assad, Russia and Iran: Wait long enough for the Americans to go away and the regime can do what it wants in Syria.
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