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The curious case of the 1-night operation Are the strikes on Syria ‘mission accomplished?’

Less than 24 hours after the United States, United Kingdom and France conducted a wave of airstrikes on Syria, US President Donald Trump rushed to tweet: “Mission accomplished!” But what was the mission, and was it accomplished?  

When Trump announced the joint strikes on April 13, the stated purpose was to “establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.” He added that the three countries were prepared to sustain their response “until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” So, the publicly avowed mission of the operation was to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from continuing to use chemical weapons in the mass slaughter of civilians that has been ongoing since 2011.

In a similar “one-night operation” on April 7 last year, the US conducted its first direct military attack against the Assad regime. Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired on the Shayrat Airbase in Homs. While there was no “Mission accomplished!” tweet last year, in a statement issued after the strike, Trump announced that, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” Yet, while “deterrence” was the keyword among US policymakers last year, and it remains so this year, the Assad regime did not find enough reasons to be “deterred,” and conducted another chemical attack against civilians in Ghouta on April 7 of this year, on the anniversary of last year’s US strike.

This time, there was palpable anxiety about how the US might respond. As the world held its breath, waiting to see what kind of military reaction it would opt for, and how it might affect the internationalized war zone in Syria, the US pursued the same “one-night operation” approach as it had done previously. But, instead of striking a single base this year, “a wave of strikes” was launched from multiple locations toward three main targets in Damascus and Homs. While most of the 103 missiles fired were American, a symbolic contribution from NATO allies France and the UK gave the operation an international flavor that was absent from last year’s unilateral US response.

There is little reason, however, to believe that the results of this year’s operation are likely to be any different to last year’s, or that these one-night missile shows can act as an effective deterrent for the Assad regime. On the contrary, such a limited response reflects a lack of strategy and commitment on the part of the international community to deal with the Syrian government, and it might very well backfire. As long as there is no price to be paid for the mass slaughter of civilians, Assad can continue business as usual, using chemical as well as more conventional methods of warfare. Indeed, such one-night operations are even reassuring for the Assad regime, in as much as they prove that the international community is not bothered enough — beyond the level of face-saving attempts to defend warfare conventions — about his doings in Syria. This is precisely what happened after the Obama administration drew its infamous “red line” in 2012 regarding the use of chemical weapons. The line was crossed, and over 1,400 people were killed in the August 2013 chemical attack outside Damascus, with almost no consequences for the regime. There was no reason, therefore, for Assad to think twice before using chemical weapons again this year. Apparently, the decision was made when the Syrian regime and its Russian ally considered it to be the right moment to terrorize the remaining fighters into surrendering and exiting the area. 

So, if one-night operations do not act as a deterrent, what are the alternatives? Opponents of military action against the Assad regime  — whether US policy experts, or anti-war activists, among others — are seemingly fond of using the “Iraq complex” as their point of reference to “never again,” arguing that the US should not use military action for the purpose of regime change. This comparison is misleading. No sane person would advocate for a military invasion of Syria — not today, not in 2013, not ever. Yet, between a military invasion and a one-night operation, there is a wide range of options that combine military action and political solutions.

There is little reason to believe that these one-night missile shows can act as an effective deterrent for the Assad regime.

If there is a useful historical comparison that could be made in this instance, it is not US intervention in Iraq in 2003, but perhaps NATO intervention against Serbia in 1999. This 11-week bombing campaign, in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s massacre and the displacement of thousands of people, the majority of whom were ethnic Albanians, could be seen as a classically “successful” humanitarian intervention in terms of its stated aims. Without a single soldier dispatched on the ground, the campaign convinced Slobodan Milosevic to agree to a peace deal. The intervention took place in the absence of UN authorization, and resulted in around 500 civilians deaths. However, it achieved the purpose of stopping the mass slaughter of civilians and putting an end to the war. Back then, the US was determined to establish itself as a global superpower in the international order. The question today is, does the US still occupy this position, and if so, how does it intend to deal with the internationalized war in Syria?

Five years ago there was no Islamic State, no millions of displaced Syrian refugees, no hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed, and UN-led political talks were not undermined to the benefit of a Russian-lead Astana peace process that is doomed to fail. A one-night operation, therefore, does not seem to be the kind of intervention needed to deter the Assad regime, nor to end the war in Syria. It takes much more than a one-night missile show.

Hanan Elbadawi is an independent writer and analyst, experienced in humanitarian issues and Arab affairs. Most recently she worked as the founding manager of the Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement and Humanitarian Responses at Yale University. Previously, she worked with the League of Arab States, the International Peace Institute and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Hanan holds a Master of Advanced Study in Global Affairs from Yale University, and an MA in international relations from the American University in Cairo.

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Hanan Elbadawi