Analysis

U.S. airstrikes on Syria risk becoming 'historical footnote' without wider strategy

In a limited and specific undertaking such as this weekend's U.S.-led missile strikes, there is perhaps the unintended but implicit message that Syria's killing of its own people by other means can continue unabated — even as the horrific war enters its eighth year of claiming civilian lives.

Trump notwithstanding, it shows Russia still calls shots in Syria, CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch a strike as part of the multinational response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar, on Saturday. (U.S. Air Force handout via Reuters)

Yet again, the people of the Middle East have lived to see another "mission accomplished."

That phrase, last owned by then President George W. Bush after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has aged badly. Donald Trump's version 15 years later, after the U.S.-led airstrikes on Syrian targets Saturday, may prove as fleeting as the tweet in which he wrote it, because as it stands, this mission, in effect, changes little.

No doubt, the main message — that chemical weapons use must be punished — came through, and might even be a deterrent in future, though how strong that effect would be remains to be seen.

But despite the expanded use of lethal force — over 100 missiles lobbed at three Syrian sites connected to the development and use of chemical weapons — critics warn the operation risks becoming a "historical footnote" without a wider Western strategy for Syria and its multiple wars.

And that risk doesn't only exist because the U.S.-France-U.K. strikes in response to Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma last weekend lasted just 17 minutes.

In such a limited and specific undertaking, and the absence of any others, there is the perhaps unintended, but implicit message, that Syria's killing of its own people by other means can continue unabated — even as the horrific war there enters its eighth year.

By limiting their intervention in Syria, now as before, Western leaders are also conceding it's business as usual for Russia there, too.

'One-off will not deter Assad'

Trump's self-congratulatory tweet notwithstanding, even the language used to couch the West's effort was a nod to how little would change: The emphasis on the mission's limitations was aimed at reassuring Syria's allies and preventing an escalation, but it also likely ensures the strike will be better remembered — if remembered at all — for what it wasn't.

"This was not about interfering in a civil war. And it was not about regime change," British Prime Minister Theresa May apparently felt the need to emphasize.

That again says the displacement of millions of Syrians, the barrel bombs, the nighttime airstrikes, the city sieges and starving of tens of thousands of people, none of that crosses red lines in the West.

"A shame on humanity," said Hadi al Bahra, a member of the opposition Syrian Negotiating Commission.

"A one-off will not deter [Syrian President] Assad from continuing his regionally destabilizing behaviour and slaughtering Syrian children with conventional weapons."

The attack was "limited," "targeted" with "clear boundaries," and steered well clear of Russian assets. As such, while it has riled Moscow, it isn't likely to provoke a Russian military response.

But it does little to help most Syrians escape the hell they continue to live, or to encourage novel thinking about how to end the country's multiple wars.

"Last night's strikes will become a historical footnote unless they are matched by a diplomatic offensive of sustained and serious character," said David Milliband, former U.K. foreign secretary and currently president of the International Rescue Committee.

"Such a strategy is not just about deterrence and disablement." It must be about peacemaking and "pressure on those engaged in the war to curb the Syrian destabilization not just of civilian lives but also of regional peace and security," Milliband said.

But the real levers in Syria remain firmly in Russian hands.

Russia looms over region

Not only does Russia still call the shots on the ground, but it is spearheading the halting diplomatic effort.

With Russia unchallenged in Syria, it remains key to its future. Under Moscow's auspices, that future still includes Assad — who appeared in a video on Saturday apparently arriving to work with a briefcase.

It also includes Iran, and its Lebanese arm, Hezbollah, both of which have troops on the ground who were key to helping Assad turn the tide of the war.

That raises more matters that remain unresolved, and will continue to fuel violence — matters like the dangerous proximity of Iranian and Israeli forces.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya react to Syria airstrikes 2:49

In the last close call that saw Israel shoot down an Iranian drone, and then have one of its own jets shot down over Syria, Russia intervened to avert an escalation.

But the occasional skirmishes between the archenemies might at some stage prove too combustible to contain.

Last week, Israeli warplanes were the first to strike inside Syria following the suspected chemical attack. Iran has vowed to respond.

How that develops may have a more potent effect on the end game in Syria than anything Western powers accomplished this week.

But then, there also still is the matter of Syria's remaining chemical weapons.

Despite Trump's "mission accomplished" declaration, U.S. officials acknowledge Syrian forces may still have more such weapons at hand. If they're used, the U.S. promises to strike again.

"There's still a residual element of the Syrian program that's out there," Lt.-Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said on Saturday.

The U.S. Department of Defence released video of the guided missile destroyer USS Monterey conducting strike operations into Syria while in the Mediterranean Sea 0:33

The OPCW, whose inspectors were once charged with shutting down facilities in Syria and destroying its chemicals, has been aware of the discrepancies since 2014, despite a deal Russia was supposed to oversee to destroy them.

"Some munitions that should have been declared were missing … and many state parties believe that the Syrian Arab republic did not declare everything it possesses in relation of its chemical weapons program," Ahmed Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, said in a recent interview.

"The use of sarin and nerve agent last year in fact did reinforce such suspicions."

The competing truths about such weapons will continue to feature in the now exacerbated acrimony between Russia and the West.

Russia consistently vetoed any attempts to sanction Syria at the UN Security Council — the same Security Council it roused on Saturday for an emergency meeting on the U.S.-led strikes.

Russia also stands accused of being behind an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on a Salisbury street using a nerve agent.

Theresa May pointedly suggested Saturday that the Syria strikes send a message "to others" about the dangers of using chemical weapons, clearly referencing Russia.

Moscow has its own language to describe the legacy of Saturday's strikes.

The impact of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to join France and the United Kingdom in co-ordinated strikes on Syria will no doubt be felt in the coming days. 10:39

"Through its actions, the U.S. makes the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria even worse and brings suffering to civilians," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement.

The U.S. already bears a "heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage" in Yugoslavia, Libya and Iraq, he said.

Some Russians threatened to burn Trump in effigy. Pro-Assad Syrians celebrated in the streets of Damascus.

Many went about their daily business as normal, accomplishing their own, mundane missions.

"I slept through them," one Syrian resident told the Guardian of the strikes that landed nearby.

"This was a pantomime anyway."

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