An evaluation of the recent US-led missile attack on Syria, its intended objective and possible outcome
Now that the United States, the United Kingdom and France have carried out their punitive strike on Syria, it is time to assess the outcome. In response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on April 7 in the city of Douma, a week later the three nations directed a barrage of 105 cruise missiles to three sites linked to Syria’s chemical weapons programme. In the aftermath, the United States has sought to highlight how seriously the strike damaged Syria’s chemical weapons programme. But the reality is that the strike was limited in scope. Several chemical weapons sites (and their delivery infrastructure) remained unscathed and, by the United States’ own admission, Damascus still has the ability to carry out chemical attacks.
The US and its allies opted for a limited strike for a couple of reasons. First, they remain wary of taking actions that could pull them further into the chaos of the ongoing Syrian civil war. In after-action briefings, the US Department of Defense repeatedly emphasised that the bombings had been specifically intended to deter further chemical weapons use, and that the US mission in Syria remained squarely focused on defeating the Islamic State. Targeting chemical weapons centres rather than facilities with both conventional and chemical weapons roles, such as air bases, reinforces this message.
All three countries also wanted to avoid any escalation with Russia and Iran, which support the Syrian government in the civil war. Unlike the United States’ April 2017 strike on the Shayrat air base, the targets of this most recent strike were far from any Russian or Iranian presence. The United Kingdom and France in particular were insistent on this. But Russia’s presence in Syria, which has historically limited US action in the country, continues to do so. Washington remains cautious of any move that could escalate into a broader conflict with Moscow. Indeed, the Syrian government even sought to take advantage of this caution by positioning some of its key equipment close to Russian forces in the country. But the constraints of Russia’s presence were not enough to preclude a military operation from the United States and its allies, only to shape it.
Even with the April 14 operation’s extremely focused objective of deterring chemical weapons attacks, its success will be hard to measure because the United States and its allies arenot quite sure where they draw the line on Syria’s use of certain chemical weapons. For instance, Washington has explicitly labelled the use of nerve agents as a red line that Syria should not cross, but it has been indirect about whether it holds the same view on the use of chlorine gas. One reason for this opaque approach is that it can be nearly impossible to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used on an already hazardous battlefield, particularly when attacks involve small amounts of less potent elements, such as chlorine. In addition, engaging in punitive strikes over relatively small chemical attacks can also raise thorny questions about the proportionality of responses.
Ultimately, the United States has decided to make decisions about responsive strikes based not on whether chemical weapons were used at all, but rather on how much damage they caused. Over the last year, for example, the Syrian government has carried out a number of chlorine attacks to which the United States has not responded, largely because of their relatively low casualty totals. The chemical weapons attack that triggered the latest punitive strike further illustrates this point. Although chlorine was almost certainly used, it is not clear whether nerve agents were as employed as well. Still, the incident resulted in such a large and anomalous list of victims that it warranted a response from the United States and its allies even without the certainty of confirmed nerve agent usage.
Following this latest strike, the Syrian government is likely to at least avoid the use of nerve agents for a significant period of time, as it did in 2017. Whether it will also cut down on the use of chlorine gas is less certain. Syrian loyalist forces will increasingly have less tactical incentive to use such weapons as their difficult urban operations around Damascus wind down. On the other hand, they may be emboldened by just how limited the latest punitive strike was. The Syrian government’s greatest priority is victory in the country’s civil war, and if it concludes that furtherretributive strikes will continue to solely target chemical weapons infrastructure, Damascus would happily make that sacrifice in exchange for the continued battlefield successes afforded by chemical weapons use.
However, the risk of making that call is high for Syria. If it misjudges, and the United States and its allies escalate their responses by bombing Syrian government leadership, troops or conventional forces, Syrian loyalist forces would suffer heavy damage. This would be a major interruption in its current campaign and could seriously compromise its progress so far. Thus, the Syrian government will mostly likely mirror its 2017 response and hold off on chemical attacks for the time being.