Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a joint press conference with the leaders of Turkey and Iran as part of a tripartite summit on Syria, in Ankara, on April 4, 2018. Parspix/Press Association. All rights reserved.The previous column in this series examined the kinds of attack that the United States and its partners might mount against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria after the reported chemical-weapons attack in Douma on 7 April. It stated:
"There is a spectrum of offensive options for US and other western militaries. But in broad terms there are three levels of action against the regime:
* Symbolic action involving strikes against one or more Syrian bases, most likely centred on the use of cruise missiles - but at a higher level of intensity than a year ago when the US fired cruise missiles after a chemical-weapons (CW) attack.
* Major action to damage the regime’s military capabilities, sufficient to deter it from further CW use and its more general targeting of non-combatants.
* Sustained military action designed to terminate the regime."
The first option was discounted as being little more than a repetition of the action in April 2017 that had had no effect on the regime; the third was ruled out because it would have taken months to prepare and would require a substantial force and a long conflict with an uncertain outcome (see "Attacking Assad: to do or not to do", 12 April 2018).
The middle option was considered most likely and was expected to be undertaken within a few days. Instead, it happened earlier than anticipated, in the early hours of 14 April, and was much smaller than expected. It involved barely 100 missiles being used against just three chemical-weapon sites, even though these would already have been evacuated and their key equipment dispersed by the Syrians. Moreover, it was conducted a few hours before inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were due in Syria to examine the site of the suspected CW attack.
There has been much propaganda from all sides, but more relevantly the Syrians and their Russian and Iranian allies have simply shrugged off the operation. Syria may possibly be deterred from using CW for some weeks or even months. But since the civil war started, the regime has in any case focused the great majority of its military resources on bombs and artillery. The relatively few CW attacks have usually been instruments of terror designed to panic people into fleeing from particular districts to make them easier to occupy and control.
In the aftermath of this US-led action the regime will continue its efforts to win the war and will only engage in any kind of peace negotiations on its own terms. Furthermore, any talk of the attack severely curtailing Syria’s CW capabilities is nonsense. The main CW agent used has been chlorine, a gas widely used in industry and readily available on the open market. If Assad has seen his chlorine stocks depleted by the attack he can simply go to his iPad and order some more.
If this is relatively clear, the events of recent days do raise other questions:
* Why the attack happened so quickly
* Why it was so small and symbolic
* Whether there is still a risk of wider conflict.
As to the first question: it's notable that as news of the airstrikes came through in the early hours of last Saturday, the BBC’s north American editor Jon Sopel reported from Washington that the Trump administration had been under some pressure from the French and British governments to commence the attack without delay. Sopel said that France was particularly keen to respond to the use of chemical weapons, whereas Britain was concerned mainly with the level of domestic opposition to the planned attack.
As to the second, this small action can usefully be put in the perspective of the region's recent conflicts. For three years until autumn 2017 the US led a coalition which staged an intensive air-war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In that war, over 106,000 guided bombs and missiles were used in 29,000 airstrikes in a campaign scarcely covered in the western media. That compares with 103 missiles fired in this hugely publicised operation.
Its symbolic nature seems to relate more to Washington than London or Paris. Initially, Trump appears to have reacted spontaneously to TV pictures of the Douma attack. He will also have been greatly encouraged by John Bolton, his hawkish new national-security advisor, whose antipathy to Iran and Russia is profound. At the same time, the kind of attack he will have wanted is far too dangerous as far as the Pentagon was concerned.
The defence secretary James Mattis, and the chair of the joint chiefs-of-staff General Joseph Dunford, seemed to have won agreement to a high-profile but low-impact operation which would avoid the risk of interaction with Russian forces. In short, it was the military reining in the politicians and not the other way round.
As to the third question, the impact on the Assad regime will be minimal. The way in which the Pentagon minimised the risk of Russian casualties is also a sign that the risk of sudden escalation may be less than was feared.
Unfortunately there are three caveats, all outside the control of the United States and its transatlantic partners. The first recalls the acronym AIM (accidents, incidents and mavericks): that is, the unplanned and unintended events that can be so dangerous when opposing forces are in a high state of tension (see "America-Israel, Syria-Iran: war by accident", 19 July 2012). This condition will persist for as long as multilevel competing forces continue to seek advantage in a largely ungoverned country. In Syria, the actors include multiple militias, the Syrian government, the Russians and Iranians, but also the Turks, Saudis, Americans, French and British.
This leads to the second caveat, namely the role of Israel. This maverick writ large currently has a notably hawkish leadership which will have welcomed the US-led attack but wanted and expected a much bigger operation. It has not got that. Instead it faces a confident regime in Damascus backed by Russia and Iran, with the latter determined to ensure that its support for Hizbollah and its influence in Syria is enhanced in the post-war environment.
The third caveat involves Putin’s Russia, which emerges from the past few days as the real victor. During the cruise-missile strikes the Russian military neither needed nor made an attempt to shoot anything down. This meant that the Pentagon would have been unable to assess the air-defence capabilities of Russia's new S-400 system.
Now, if they so choose, Putin and Assad can probe how far they can goad the US and its partners in the coming months, in the process gauging what divisions inside these countries they can exacerbate. The US-UK-French alliance may think it is, in Trump’s perilous words, “mission accomplished”. In reality it may be far less in control of what happens next than its adversaries.