Expert Views: Impact of the Syrian Missile Strike

Saturday’s missile strike on Syria may temporarily deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons but it will not alter the trajectory of the seven-year-long war, experts from Syria Deeply’s community said.

Written by Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
U.S. FIFTH FLEET AREA OF OPERATIONS - APRIL 13: In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) fires a Tomahawk land attack missile at Syria as part of an allied strike April 13, 2018.Matthew Daniels/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

BEIRUT – The United States, the United Kingdom and France’s joint strike targeting the Syrian government’s suspected chemical weapons capabilities on Saturday is unlikely to prevent future poison gas attacks or significantly alter the current trajectory of the war, experts told Syria Deeply.

The Pentagon has confirmed attacks on three facilities: the Scientific Research Center in Barzeh near Damascus, which is allegedly connected to the production of chemical and biological weapons and two facilities near Homs, including a chemical weapons storage facility and a chemical weapons equipment storage site that also houses an important command post.

The Russian military says Syrian military facilities only suffered minor damage, claiming that Syria’s air defense systems shot-down 71 of the 103 cruise missiles before they reached their intended targets. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, however, denied Russia’s claim, saying that no missiles launched by the U.S. and its allies were stopped. He put the total number of missiles fired at 105, including 66 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

No civilian, Syrian government or allied forces casualties had been reported as of Saturday evening. Three civilians were reportedly injured when the Syrian army “thwarted and diverted” a missile attack on a military position in Homs.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Syria Deeply’s expert community weighs in on the potential implications of the strikes and whether or not it will deter from future chemical attacks in the country.

Perry Cammack is a Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Trump’s military actions turned out to be more measured than his military rhetoric. After declaring on Twitter, “Get ready Russia, because [missiles] will be coming,” the U.S. airstrikes early Saturday morning were more modest than expected, narrowly targeting Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Trump, who has done incalculable damage to American democratic norms, is standing up for international norms. And yet, global prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons are discernibly stronger today than they were yesterday. This may have some positive knock-on effects going forward in the Middle East and beyond.

But the airstrikes will have no real effect on the trajectory of the conflict. The Syrian army will presumably get the message regarding the use of such heinous weapons. But it continues to have impunity regarding its brutal conventional assault against civilians. Although roughly 70 people died in the Douma attacks last week, roughly half a million Syrians have died in seven years of war. [Saturday’s] attacks do little to protect the average Syrian.

Assad may even gain politically from them since he can claim defiance against American aggression. The Syrian army has managed to seize the military advantage even with the threat of periodic Israeli airstrikes. [Assad] now knows that Trump – though ever erratic – has narrowly defined U.S. strategic interests in Syria around chemical weapons use.

Likewise, the prospect for a diplomatic opening in the wake of the attacks is extremely low. The rebels are weak and divided, Assad has significant military momentum, and there is little prospect for serious United States-Russia engagement.

On the other hand, the risk of significant military escalation between the U.S. and Russia has, at least for now, abated. Russia’s interests in Syria do not appear to be in any serious jeopardy. Although Russia will vigorously protest the airstrikes, Russian generals presumably won’t be sad to see Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure degraded.

Nawar Oliver is a military researcher and a military mapper and analyst at Omran Center, a think-tank based in Istanbul.

In my perspective, do you think the Americans, British and French really care about the regime and that the [attack] yesterday was just to prevent the use of chemical weapons? It was part of it. But the main thing is, there was a hidden message to the Russians that despite your existence and massive victories on the ground, we remain part of the game and we will always be part of the political solution.

Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

The tripartite Anglo-American-French missile strikes will probably succeed in briefly stopping the use of these barbaric instruments of war, as they have in the past.

But, the strikes fail the triple tests of efficacy, legitimacy, and credibility. Thus, they must be viewed with great scepticism as political acts that primarily aim to impress domestic western audiences and that have consequences that lead to more turmoil and new forms of violence in the Middle East.

They fail the efficacy test because previous strikes by the U.S. and its allies against terror groups and militant governments since the 1992 missile strikes against Al-Qaeda have not deterred al-Qaeda or other such groups. In fact, the array of government and militant forces that stand up to the U.S. and other Western powers has only expanded in recent years. Simultaneously, Iranian, Russian and Turkish influence in Syria and other Arab lands has grown steadily, in line with the persistent militarism of the U.S. and other Western powers that say they wish to push it back.

The attacks fail the legitimacy test because the punitive measures were taken before the U.N. and other international bodies authorized to investigate responsibility for chemical attacks had not completed their work, which starts today on the ground. The tripartite attackers cannot claim legitimate self-defense because they were not under threat of imminent attack and were not attacked themselves, as they did after 9/11.

The attacks fail the credibility test because it is hard to take very seriously the Western concern about deaths by chemical weapons — however gruesome they are. The U.S, France and UK are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East over many decades. Their concern with preventing more innocent deaths by cruel means would be more credible, for example, if the US and UK stopped actively assisting the Saudi Arabian and Emirati war against Yemen, where tens of thousands suffer from cholera and thousands more have died from disease, malnutrition, and other impacts of war.

These attacks continue a Western tradition of nonstop warfare in the Arab region that started with Napoleon more than two centuries ago, and has persisted with the same results — resistance from local powers, destruction of Middle Eastern societies and states, and the emergence of radical forces and governments that try to stand up to the foreign attackers. From the Roman Emperor Trajan to Trump, Macron and May, these lessons keep being learned again and again, as they will be in this case once more. Only by addressing the root causes of the political violence in the Middle East through political and socio-economic means will put an end to fighting, run the dictators out of town, and achieve peace and prosperity for the long-suffering people of the region who remain helpless in the face of domestic and foreign killers.

Andrea Taylor is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

The questions over whether the strikes were an effective deterrence method and their impact on the broader war in Syria is premised on two key issues: were the attacks sufficiently punitive to dissuade future chemical weapons usage? Did the U.S., U.K. and France make the threshold for future responses clear enough?

As U.S. Secretary of Defense General James Mattis stated the evening of the strikes, the Syrian regime and its backers are likely to use disinformation methods to block a clear picture of damage from the strikes. Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford acknowledged that the strikes did not fully eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capabilities. Instead, attacks hit facilities that could be easily targeted with minimal risk to civilians. Given both of these factors, the Syrian regime and its backers are likely to downplay the damage and effectiveness of the strikes. To at least some unclear degree, however, the military response has raised the cost to the regime of again using chemical weapons.

Pending further statements from the U.S., UK, and France, the threshold for responding militarily remains undefined. Mattis acknowledged certainty that the Syrian regime had used chlorine but uncertainty regarding use of sarin at the time of the strikes. Given the Assad regime has used chlorine at varying frequencies and degrees throughout the conflict to this point and usage did not cause a military response until April 13, it remains unclear to the Assad regime and its backers whether they can use limited amounts of chlorine in the conflict with impunity. At a minimum, the decision to respond militarily to chemical weapon usage does imply that other regime violations of international law such as forced displacement and indiscriminate bombing are below the threshold that results in a punitive response.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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