The video of the aftermath of Bashar Assad’s recent chemical attack on his own people displayed gruesome images that would challenge even the most committed pacifist to look the other way.
President Donald Trump’s options were extremely limited. Between carefully calibrated airstrikes on one hand and the robust military action that would be necessary to depose Assad on the other, virtually no other possibilities presented themselves.
So on Friday night, Trump chose airstrikes. In coordination with Britain and France, more than 100 missiles were launched at a few Syrian targets that were involved in Assad’s production of chemical weapons.
This was risky. Russia, a nuclear power, had threatened to respond to any attack, and it had the military assets in the area to do so. The accidental deaths of Russian or Iranian military personnel would have had unpredictable consequences.
But Saturday morning the New York Times was reporting a “palpable sense of relief” in Moscow. None of its interests in Syria had been affected, relieving Russia of an obligation to retaliate. On the same page the Times reported that the “Pentagon Declares Syria Strikes Successful.” Trump tweeted, “Mission Accomplished!”
It was the perfect limited strike. It did not spark a wider conflict. Casualties were minimal. The strike’s modest goals provided Moscow and Tehran an opportunity to back down gracefully from their rhetoric. Trump has an opportunity to brag. And Americans who were justifiably horrified by the images of children gasping for breath can comfort themselves with the consolation that at least we did something.
But, really, nothing has changed. Assad’s chemical weapons capacity may have suffered a setback, but Lt. General Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, concedes that “there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there…I’m not going to say that they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future.”
And by Saturday morning an unverified video was released showing Bashar Assad, in suit and tie and briefcase in hand, going to work as usual.
Of course. Our faith in the effectiveness of limited airstrikes like last Friday’s is unfounded. Assad is in a fight for his life, and the idea that we can teach him a lesson that will dissuade him from the future use of such weapons is far-fetched.
Further, Friday’s attack ignores the suffering that can be imposed on innocents by conventional weapons that, for some reason, don’t raise our moral hackles in the way that chemical weapons do. With or without chemical weapons, as long as the Syrian civil war continues, women and children will be burned, crushed, buried alive and ripped by shrapnel until Assad has reclaimed full control of the country.
And in some respects, our barely tactical, non-strategic attack last Friday merely prolongs the suffering by maintaining the illusion that we have the power to influence the state of affairs in this part of the Middle East.
It fails to take into account an unwelcome but inevitable reality: Iran has won this round as the result of a series of events that began in March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. At some point the rise of Iran became inevitable. It’s too bad that the Russians got involved, but our inept interference in the Syrian civil war probably made that inevitable, as well.
In any case, we can hope that the power standoff between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will provide enough anxious equilibrium and temporary stability to stop Assad’s assault on his own people and to suck the wind out of ISIS.
We have a passing interest in the Kurds — I’d advise them not to depend on us too much — and certainly an abiding and crucial interest in the security of Israel.
So this is not the best outcome that we could imagine, but it is the one that is in place. We’re left with this question: What, in our history of intervention in complex parts of the world since 1945, led us to believe that we could have made things turn out differently with military force?
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.