Why you should care
Because Washington’s very measured response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons doesn’t move the needle.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The U.S. and allied military strikes on suspected chemical weapons (CW) sites in Syria will have no appreciable effect on the larger foreign policy dilemma the Assad regime represents. It may discourage Assad from using CW on innocent civilians, at least for a time, but even that is uncertain.
The sites hit by strikes in the middle of the night last Friday were described by the Pentagon as a CW-linked research center outside Damascus and two CW-related sites near the city of Homs. The U.S. military carried out the strikes competently and professionally, with little, if any, damage to civilians, minimal loss of life in Syria and no U.S. casualties. The strikes may represent some degradation or delays in Syria’s CW program, particularly for the higher-end weapons such as sarin.
Experts point out, however, that what the military calls bomb damage assessment (BDA) is notoriously difficult to carry out accurately, especially in the early days after a mission. This is doubly true when adversaries have had clear warning of an attack in advance, providing time to move or hide capabilities. In this case, the Syrians and Russians both knew through President’s Trump’s tweet three days earlier that missiles were headed their way.
So in broader terms, the strike leaves the United States exactly where it has been.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has offered no evidence that the United States destroyed stockpiles of weapons, so there is a strong chance some were relocated in anticipation of strikes. Moreover, much of Assad’s chemical use has involved chlorine, and there are probably still ample supplies of that in Syria.
If Assad’s reaction to the more restrained strike Washington carried out a year ago is any indication, he will probably desist from CW usage for a while and then resume small attacks to test U.S. reaction. He likely will be emboldened by the fact that none of the American weapons were directed at “leadership targets” like his palace, military commanders or other Syrian officials.
Why was the strike not more extensive? For starters, Trump has signaled a reluctance to get more deeply involved in Syria. He would prefer to find a way out, leaving solutions up to regional actors. Also, the U.S. national security team is in transition and even though some newcomers, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, might have favored a more comprehensive attack, this team — lacking a secretary of state and many other officials — is not yet organized to manage a complex or prolonged campaign.
So in broader terms, the strike leaves the United States exactly where it has been: holding a small but significant northeastern corner of the country with 2,000 U.S. troops and our Kurdish allies, while the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Turkey exercise predominant influence in most of Syria. Russia has succeeded in preserving Assad’s power and, at this point, the United States has no real leverage or plan to change that — it is perhaps no longer even a priority U.S. objective.
As Trump’s new national security team takes shape, it will likely debate the choice that has loomed for some time: to go small, basically working only to clean out ISIS remnants, or to go big — not with a huge troop increase but by keeping existing forces there while elbowing to the forefront of a diplomatic game that Russia and Iran have been winning. This would require invigorating some forum, probably under the United Nations, aimed at arranging a transitional government that eases out Assad and ushers in some more representative government in Damascus.
This may now be too steep a hill to climb. Success would require making a deal with Russia, with whom relations are at a post–Cold War low, and some way of either accommodating or pushing out Iran, which has invested heavily in gaining a solid foothold in Syria.
Washington has arrived at this sad crossroads because of the difficulty our two most recent administrations have had in choosing among the agonizing alternatives Syria presents. For Obama, the dilemma was that placing priority on Assad’s ousting would have helped ISIS, and prioritizing the destruction of ISIS would have helped Assad. So his administration split the difference and achieved neither in full measure. But not making a decision on Syria has often amounted to allowing the situation to worsen.
Why does any of this matter? Because the Middle East’s problems converge in Syria — the conflict between Sunni and Shia Arabs; the terrorist challenge to governments; Iran’s ambition to dominate the region; the dangers this poses for U.S. allies like Israel and Jordan; and the pent-up backlash against authoritarianism that briefly exploded in the Arab Spring. In a region that, advisedly or not, has looked to the United States for leadership and still does, “going small” and focusing on just a narrow slice of the problem sends the message that we have abandoned this role. And that will be the message heard elsewhere around the world.
That, along with the aching humanitarian concerns Syria must awaken, is why “going big” is important.