The limited airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities on 13 April – conducted by the US, Britain and France – will not change that calculus. Iranian and Russian flags were prominent in a pro-regime celebration in Umayyad Square in Damascus that followed the next morning. President Assad’s office tweeted a short video of the Syrian leader nonchalantly strolling to work with his briefcase in hand. He was also pictured smiling warmly as he received a delegation of Russian parliamentarians. Russia continues to obstruct the UN-supported investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, confident in the knowledge that useful idiots in the West will dance to its tune.
Once President Trump had publicly committed the US to reprisals against the Syrian regime, a menu of options was discussed by his administration and its allies. Reports from Washington DC suggest that cooler heads in the Pentagon prevailed against the hyper-hawkish impulses of the new national security adviser, John Bolton, who favoured a more spectacular attack on the regime to underscore US military prowess. James Mattis, the more cautious defence secretary, outlined the potential fallout should the US and its allies endanger the large Russian presence in the country. As Mattis put it, “right now this is a one-time shot”.
If anything, Assad and his sponsors will arguably be more concerned by a surprise attack on a military base near Homs that took place two days before the joint Western action. This is presumed to have been conducted by the Israeli air force, targeting a facility known as T-4, where there is known to be an Iranian presence. The same facility was hit by the Israelis in February and as far back as November 2013, Israel also entered Syrian airspace to strike a weapons storage facility that was being used by another of its mortal enemies, Hezbollah. Setting aside the question of Western involvement, much dry tinder remains in these overlapping proxy wars.
The first of the major Western missteps was the rush to declare that “Assad must go” at the very onset of the conflict in 2011. This was based on the conviction – an entirely reasonable one it would prove – that the Syrian regime was the chief aggressor in the civil war. The problem was that it was an aspiration dressed up as a policy. Once the rise of Islamic State gave perfectly ghoulish form to the fears about what might come in Assad’s place, the climbdown was clumsily managed. It not only cheapened the language of Western diplomacy, but diluted the element of deterrence supposed to give it weight.
A more prudent strategy, with a potentially better humanitarian outcome, would have been to avoid the rush to unachievable absolutes. By keeping open a range of diplomatic options, there would have been more latitude to exercise a tourniquet approach against the regime, setting its actions within bounds that could realistically be policed. Opportunities came and went to take measures stopping short of any substantive military intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone to provide some space for talks to occur.
In the collective response of the US, UK and France to the latest attack, it has at least been established that Western tolerance for the proliferation and normalisation of chemical weapons still has some bounds, with the immediate risk of a major escalation with Russia and Iran also avoided. Yet Trump’s crass boasts of “mission accomplished” – repeated twice in recent weeks with reference to the campaign against IS and the attack on the Syrian regime – confirm that we cannot expect any serious diplomatic initiative or strategy to follow.