Late Friday night, U.S., British and French forces struck three Syrian chemical weapons facilities in what Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called proportional but heavy and carefully constructed attacks designed to avoid collateral damage.
Somewhere around 100 U.S. and allied cruise missiles were fired. No Russian forces in Syria were targeted or struck.
At a Friday night press conference shortly after the strike, Mattis, flanked by the French and British defense attaches posted to Washington, acknowledged that no further attacks were planned. Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledged that thus far the only chemical weapon identified was chlorine. Nor was the intelligence linking these attacks directly to the Syrian government made public. And no explanation of why Syria employed these weapons was offered.
Russia responded with harsh rhetoric condemning the attacks alleging that some 70 of the 100-plus missiles were shot down — a claim at face value that seems absurd. However, for the moment, it appears that this crisis has been weathered and further escalation and confrontation avoided. Whether this attack, which was almost double in size to the 60 Tomahawks fired last April in response to Syrian use of chemical weapons, deters Syria remains to be seen. And the civil war continues with Bashar al-Assad and his government gaining ever more control over the conflict-riven country.
Whether or not President Donald Trump will make good his intent to withdraw American forces from Syria likewise is in question. Nor is American (and allied) strategy regarding Syria and the region other than eliminating the Islamic State any clearer. And what Syria or Russia may do beyond verbal protests after the attacks is also uncertain.
Several initial conclusions can be drawn. First, the strikes were well-coordinated, well-planned and meant to minimize collateral damage and avoid Russian casualties. Second, for all the bellicose Twitter threats made by the president, the attacks reflected restraint not to escalate the level of violence. Third, the reaction by both Republican and Democrats has been guardedly supportive although some members of Congress will rightly argue that the Authorization to Use Military Force granted for the 2003 Iraq War does not extend to the fight against IS or in attacking Syria and question whether Syria will remain deterred.
But the fact remains that a solution to the Syrian conflict remains elusive. Civilians will continue to die. And the massive exodus of millions of Syrians will not be reversed. In a perfect world, what might have been done differently?
The president and his colleagues, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, had three options in using force. The first was to retaliate in hope, and hope must be emphasized, of deterring further use of these weapons. The second was far more ambitious with the intent to destabilize the regime. And third was to use these attacks as a means of forcing or inducing negotiations to ending the civil war.
Clearly threatening regime change, while attractive to a fringe element forgetful of the second Iraq War, was too dangerous to be a responsible course of action and no doubt rejected out of hand certainly by Britain and France if not by everyone in the White House. The most strategic is the third option-using the strikes in concert with other means-to hasten negotiations. How might such an option have been structured?
Despite the impossibility of bringing Bashar al Assad to justice in the immediate future, why not brand him and his regime war criminals as was done with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic? That step would implicitly condemn Russia by association and perhaps coalesce a stronger international reaction against Syria’s use of banned weapons.
Second, instead of a single large strike, why not continue even relatively small attacks over an extended period to pressurize the regime as further means for a settlement?
And third, why not engage Turkey in reaching some sort of settlement with the Kurds who so far have been the major military force in Syria battling IS to strengthen their status thus applying further pressure on Damascus that might support a broader negotiation?
Some will argue, with some merit, that compelling any negotiation is unworkable; that the civil war will end of its own accord. That may prove correct. However, the alternative of a single missile strike in retaliation for Syrian use of chemical weapons is just that. And it will not achieve the goal of deterring their future use or end the war more quickly.
Harlan Ullman is the principal author of “shock and awe” and a distinguished senior fellow and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure — Why America Loses Every War It Starts.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.