An illusory victory: Was “mission accomplished” in Syria?

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber, being deployed to launch strikes as part of the multinational response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, is refuelled by a KC-135 tanker aircraft over an undisclosed location, April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC1C9014E3B0

After the April 13 attack on Syrian chemical facilities, the leaders of the United States, France, and Britain—who jointly conducted the strike—expressed satisfaction at the outcome. As Trump tweeted the next morning:

But was this really a “mission accomplished”? The attack itself was quite limited, and an analysis of other paths not taken indicates that better options—to accomplish the intended goal of preventing the further use of chemical weapons, as well as sending a stronger message—were likely available.

Western Intentions

Did the strike achieve its goals?

The attack itself was quite restrained: The Western leaders sought to do something that yielded no Russian or Iranian casualties and no Syrian civilian casualties, and that did not include targets that might escalate the already complex situation (e.g. by drawing Russia in). So the targets selected were only chemical facilities, mostly empty of personnel—and possibly of regime equipment and chemical weapons, too, since the regime had almost a week to prepare for the well-advertised attack.

The tightly circumscribed Western approach carried a very troubling subtext. International norms have evolved in the 21st century such that using chemical weapons is viewed as a heinous and morally reprehensible act. Does this mean that the regime has a green light to continue using conventional means against its own population? In the seven years since the start of the civil war, the death toll is close to half a million, and most of those deaths were the result of conventional bombings. As our colleague Mara Karlin recently said to the Washington Post: “How horrific is it that we are particularly disturbed by one way of killing Syrian children but not the other?”

Of course, none of the Western parties to the attack intended that kind of message. What matters is how it’s perceived, and both the Russians and Syrians are experts at reading in between the lines. Western powers showed prudence and risk aversion, explained their rationale cautiously to domestic audiences, and ultimately sent a weak message that above all emphasized Western reluctance to pay a price in order to help change dynamics in Syria.

The triumvirate: Damascus-Tehran-Moscow’s response

For Assad, the only thing that matters is regime survival, and anything that stands in his way justifies the use of all possible means. Thus, he still directs his army—worn out after seven years of war—to take extreme measures, even though they’re on the verge of consolidating victory. For Assad, the opposition is viewed as an existential threat to the regime’s survival, so any and every means to enervate their strength is justified. Assad has indicated that he will win the war at all costs.

The insistence from Washington, Paris, and London that this attack was a “one off” was reassuring to Assad. He understands their interest in not provoking Russia and Iran, and now has an explicit Western guarantee. Trump, meanwhile, expressed a clear desire to remove U.S. troops from Syria—while he has backed away from that as an immediate demand, it’s likely still on his mind.

The sigh of relief in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran—despite the routine, diplomatic rebukes—was loud and clear. Russia responded to the attack by saying: “Such actions will not be left without consequences.” These leaders were concerned that this time, unlike last April, there may be a heavier price tag—while in fact, there was not. Leaders of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, quickly replaced such warnings with expressions of satisfaction—Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, for one, explicitly said the attack was limited because Western allies feared retaliation.

The road not taken

One might argue that the Western options were not great to begin with. If we agree that a military escalation in Syria is a bad idea (from the West’s point of view)—a belief we, the authors, share—how much risk is the West willing to incur in order to deliver a message to Syria and Russia?

A possible different and wider set of targets might have been the answer. In addition to the chemical weapons facilities, targeting a few military sites—such as anti-aircraft batteries—would have been a clear escalated response over last year’s airstrike, with the added bonus of hitting the regime where it really hurts. A small touch would have sufficed.

An even stronger message would have been a symbolic hit to a regime symbol, such as an official empty office building, or the facilities and arsenal of the elite units. With no further explanations, the message would have been very clear: Next time, the attack may pose an actual substantial threat to the regime, directly threatening President Assad, and disrupting the Russian achievements in Syria. This may have more effectively deterred the re-use of chemical weapons, and might have also incentivized a more immediate diplomatic process, reserving the United States a better seat at the table.

The attack was planned with a justifiably cautious approach to a possible Russian reaction, but that risk was exaggerated. Russia cannot afford a military conflict with the West, especially not against the United States, and particularly not in Syria. Such a scenario, from a Russian point of view, is a dangerous gamble, as it risks Russian assets in a very delicate and precarious environment. Russian retaliation would also be unlikely after an attack that didn’t pose a direct threat to Russian lives or assets. From a capabilities perspective, Russia lacks the necessary military capacity for a wider confrontation, both in Syria and globally.

In short: Even without changing the risk calculation, there would have been considerably more effective options that would have delivered a tougher message while also improving the West’s position by showing it is unwilling to tolerate Assad’s horrific abuses.

Yet, the strikes’ limited scope stand as a testament to America’s ultimate unwillingness to pressure Russia and Assad. Such pressure is needed to advance the diplomatic process towards ending the civil war, and also to reassert deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. U.S. deterrence vis-à-vis Russia has also slipped as a result. This month’s limited attack in Syria failed to deliver a strong message—rather, it indicated weakness.