Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump authorized a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from which a chemical attack was launched by Bashar Assad’s regime. That strike marked a significant departure from former President Barack Obama’s widely discredited policy toward Syria – one that could change the Syrian conflict’s rules of engagement, if not its course.
The use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in the Middle East is far from a new phenomenon, and Arab socialist and Baathist regimes – with their ideological kinship to Nazism and fascism – have been the most common perpetrators. Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egyptian forces regularly used chemical weapons against Yemeni loyalist guerrillas and civilian villagers from 1963 to 1967. Saddam Hussein’s forces also used them regularly, against Iranians, Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Shiite majority, from 1983 to 1991.
But the Assad regime has outdone them all, conducting perhaps the most lethal, intense, and large-scale chemical-weapons campaign in the Middle East. Since late 2012, there have been some 64 alleged attacks, employing various toxic chemicals, ranging from chlorine to sarin gas. The latest attack, which killed more than 85 civilians and injured over 550, was part of this ongoing campaign.
In the Middle East’s six-decade-long history of state-directed chemical mass murder, one power has consistently protected the perpetrators: Russia. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union stifled condemnations of Abdel-Nasser’s attacks on the Yemenis, leading then-United Nations Secretary-General U Thant to declare that he was powerless to deal with the matter. Today, Russia’s involvement goes further than silencing debate in the U.N. Security Council or promoting diplomatic and legal impunity. President Vladimir Putin’s regime may have contributed to the latest chemical attack by secretly reneging on the 2013 “framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons,” which called for the elimination of Syria’s stockpiles by mid-2014. It may even have been directly complicit in the attack.
In any case, the U.S. now seems to be shifting its approach in a way that could have far-reaching implications for the Syrian conflict, almost all of which would be bad for Assad and his patrons in Russia and Iran. From a military perspective, the main impact of the strike, which apparently destroyed 20 percent of Assad’s operational aircraft in less than an hour – will be to boost deterrence, though to what extent remains unclear.
What is clear is that the Obama administration established no deterrence at all. Obama defined the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that the Assad regime must not cross. But when Assad killed at least 1,429 people in Ghouta – including more than 426 children – with sarin gas in August 2013, Tomahawk cruise missiles did not rain down on Assad’s forces. And although the agreement with Russia led in August 2014 to the destruction of more than 600 metric tons of chemical agents, Assad and his allies carried out some 20 chemical attacks on the Aleppo, Idlib and Rif Damascus governorates between July 2014 and the end of Obama’s presidency.
Deterring Assad demanded credible military action. That is what the Trump administration has now provided, proving that it is both willing and able to punish those who cross its red lines. The “able” part matters. The Kremlin deployed missile defense systems – including the state-of-the-art SA-21 Growler – in Syria about six months ago, claiming that Assad’s air bases were now safe from American cruise missiles. While such claims may have been useful to boost sales of Russian arms showcased in Syria, they turned out to mean little: Russia failed to intercept the U.S. missiles.
Of course, in tipping off Russia about its plans, the Trump administration may have succeeded in preventing a Russian attempt to thwart them. But Russia probably could not have intercepted the U.S. missiles in any case. The Growler systems are located at Russia’s air base in Latakia and a naval base in Tartus, some 75 kilometers and 120 kilometers, respectively, from the Shayrat air base that the U.S. struck.
That is too far for the Growler’s short-range projectiles, and the system’s long-range projectiles cannot intercept missiles – such as the BQM-109 Tomahawks used by the U.S. – that can skim the earth’s surface at an altitude of just five meters.
But if the U.S. airstrike left a bruise on Russia, the damage done to Assad’s forces is less clear. To be sure, they lost about 20 aircraft and suffered significant damage to bunkers, fuel tanks, munitions storage facilities and air-defense radars. But parts of the airport remained operational after the attack, and Assad’s forces bombed the same sarin-choked town of Khan Sheikhoun with conventional ordnance just hours after the Tomahawks struck.
This points to a fundamental flaw in the U.S. approach to Syria. The overwhelming majority of Assad’s victims have been killed by conventional, not chemical, weapons. Yet the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has focused on halting chemical attacks. In both cases, U.S. policymakers have sought tactics for reducing war crimes, rather than credible strategies for ending the war.
An oft-repeated adage in diplomatic discussions about the Syrian conflict is that there are no military solutions. That does not mean that military action has no role to play. On the contrary, there probably can be no diplomatic solution or lasting settlement without action that resets the military balance and undermines both the conventional and unconventional capacities of Assad and his patrons. It does mean, however, that one coalition of actors won’t be able to eradicate the others. It also means that the challenge for the Trump administration extends far beyond outmaneuvering Russian air-defense systems and tactically punishing a brutal, petty dictator.
Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and a senior research fellow at the Center for Global Policy, is the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements” and “Collusion to Collision: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 14, 2017, on page 7.