Missile strikes compromised by competing goals and instability in the White House
The weekend’s bombing of Syria, led by the United States with the United Kingdom and France in tow, was intended to send a message: that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and if diplomacy cannot prevent it then we will use force. Narrowly targeted missile strikes against chemical weapons facilities were a direct response to what was almost certainly the Assad regime’s chemical attack on the town of Douma, which left dozens dead. Parliament should have been consulted before the missiles were fired, but now that they have fallen we must hope their intended message gets through.
Unfortunately, there are good reasons to doubt it will. The strikes were calibrated with competing goals in mind. They had to be tough enough to deter Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, but not so tough that they would provoke Russia, which backs the Syrian regime, into retaliatory action that might escalate the conflict. This may prove too narrow a strategic window to be truly effective. With ample warning of a strike, the Syrian regime had plenty of time to move stockpiles and soldiers away from the target areas before the bombing started. Mr Assad maintains the capacity to use chemical weapons against his own people and the willingness to prop up his tyranny at the cost of any number of civilian lives. The weekend’s bombing was less a message than a gesture – and a gesture that fails in its effect sends the opposite message to that intended. That may have been the message received by both sides in the war: “The American strikes did not change anything for Syrians on the ground,” Osama Shoghari, an anti-government activist, said afterwards.