Washington (United States) (AFP) – The Western air strikes against Syria probably won’t slow Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s campaign and they certainly don’t amount to a strategy to kick start the failing peace process.
They were never meant to.
But, by re-focusing Washington’s attention however briefly on Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, they served to highlight the political confusion over the US role in the conflict.
President Donald Trump was positively giddy after US, French and British planes carried out precision strikes on three sites allegedly tied to Assad’s chemical arsenal.
“Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!” he declared, apparently without irony.
And what was the mission? US officials deployed to brief journalists after the strike were very clear, it was a limited effort to deter Assad from resorting to chemical weapons.
As such, whether or not the mission proves successful, it has no bearing on the broader US strategy.
As analyst Tobias Schneider of the Global Public Policy Institute argues, Assad may have been worried by “a brief moment of speculation” that the allies might act to roll back his war effort.
“But the US declined to leverage the situation into a wider diplomatic-military initiative,” he wrote on Twitter. “The goal is to save a little face on chemical weapons, ‘defeat ISIS’, and get out.”
In other words, as the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council after the strikes: “Our Syrian strategy has not changed.”
That strategy was last laid out in detail in January by then secretary of state Rex Tillerson in an address to the Hoover Institute of Stanford University in California.
Washington’s main goal in deploying troops and a small diplomatic team to eastern Syria to work with local militia was the final defeat of the extremist Islamic State group.
But maintaining a military footprint also supports two more goals: to pressure Assad into engaging with a UN-led peace process in Geneva and to counter his ally Iran’s “malign” ambitions.
All three elements were portrayed as key to ending the civil war and securing America’s broader interests in quelling terrorism and protecting regional allies like Israel.
– Rapid withdrawal –
But Tillerson is no longer secretary of state after he was brutally sacked in a tweet by a president who is increasingly calling his own shots in national security policy.
And it is not even clear if Trump ever read the Stanford speech, which officials still refer to as an outline of US goals and plans for Syria. Instead, he says he wants a rapid US withdrawal.
“We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” he declared on March 30, in a populist speech to industrial workers in Ohio.
Many of Trump’s advisers and Washington’s allies were disturbed. Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular see the US presence as vital to oppose Iran’s influence.
And supporters of the all-but-moribund UN-backed Geneva peace process had dared hope, especially after Tillerson’s speech, that US leverage would help push Assad to the table.
Trump’s supporters on America’s isolationist right and far-right were enthusiastic, and hailed the threatened withdrawal as a victory over “globalist” voices urging American engagement.
But then came the Douma attack and, confronted by images of children convulsed by nerve agent and choking on chlorine, Trump ordered punitive strikes, quickly getting France and Britain on board.
His own military was nervous that too broad an action would risk a clash with Russian forces, but when it came time to act the targets were carefully chosen and the impact limited.
Afterwards, a senior US official insisted that Washington would continue to press Russia to cajole Assad into the Geneva talks, seeking “constitutional reform and free and fair elections.”
Trump, however, has still not committed to extending the US military presence after the IS group’s defeat and his planned withdrawal may send a stronger signal to Assad than any strikes.
For all the diplomatic, political and media attention paid to Saturday’s allied strikes it was not an especially violent day by Syria’s recent standards.
The country has been in the grip of a multi-faction civil war for more than seven years and more than 350,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.
US and allied aircraft regularly carry out strikes against the Islamic State group, while Russian planes strike opposition areas on behalf of Assad.
Turkey has intervened in northern Syria against armed Kurdish groups, and earlier this week Israeli jets bombed a Syrian airfield used by Iranian forces.
Even last Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma, which triggered the western response, was only the latest in an ugly series.
– ‘Locked and loaded’ –
Meanwhile, Assad remains free to complete his brutal reconquest of shrinking rebel-held enclaves despite tough talk from US officials, particularly Haley, who warned Russia the allies remain “locked and loaded.”
But the short target list and the clear determination of US commanders to avoid a clash with Assad’s Russian protectors may have inadvertently sent an entirely different signal.
“I’m not sure whether he will get the message not to use chemical weapons anymore,” warned Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“I think, if anything, these strikes tell him: ‘Look, these are the only things you can’t do. Everything else you want to do it’s fine,’” he told AFP.
“And it’s a correct reading of the situation.”