President Trump’s strike on Syria was a tactical response that lacks a long-term strategy. Photograph by Susan Walsh / AP
On Saturday, President Trump revelled in the military efficiency of the joint strike by the United States, Britain, and France on three chemical-weapons facilities in Syria. The tightly choreographed multinational operation—involving aircraft and ships in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf—took less than two hours. More than a hundred missiles—nearly double the size of the 2017 U.S. strike on Syria—hit their targets. A production site, command post, and storage facilities were obliterated. Neither the Russians nor Iranians tried to stop the strike or intervene militarily. Syria’s air defenses failed miserably. All allied aircraft and personnel returned safely to their bases. “A perfectly executed strike last night,” Trump tweeted, on Saturday morning. “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
Technically, that’s true. The limited military operation—far smaller than the advance hype suggested—did degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use weaponized toxins against civilians. But it did not eliminate Syria’s entire stock, the Pentagon acknowledged, in a press briefing on Saturday. “The program is larger than what we struck,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters. “We could have gone to other places and done other things.” The six-day run-up to the strike may also have allowed sufficient time for Syria to relocate equipment and personnel, the Pentagon said.
More fundamentally, however, Trump’s strike was a tactical response that lacks a long-term strategy to help restore stability to turbulent Syria. A country that is the geostrategic center of the Middle East, Syria has been ravaged by seven years of a war that has killed an estimated half million people and displaced more than half of its twenty-three million citizens. The U.S.-led military operation did nothing to change those realities—or even challenge Assad’s brutal rule or his growing military grip on the country.
“So you strike. Then what?” Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Syria (as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait), told me. “If the rockets hit the targets they intended, you could say the mission was accomplished in a narrow sense. But, in reality, it accomplished nothing. It might have been better if we’d not struck at all. It’s sending a message that killing is O.K. any way but one way—with chemical weapons. How many have been killed in Eastern Ghouta during this whole Syrian campaign? Far more by non-chemical means. It’s obscene.”
The strike, Crocker said, demonstrated the limits of the West’s power rather than its commitment to ending the murderous reign of the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for nearly half a century. The operation could even produce the “appearance of impotence” among Western nations. “What damage did we really do?” Crocker, now a fellow at Princeton University, asked. “You can strike once, which we did. The second time around is less meaningful. The Syrians keep using“—chemical weapons—“and we say, ‘Naughty, naughty.’ It tees up a great opportunity for Assad to show how impotent and irrelevant we are.”
Like many U.S. diplomats who have served in the region, Crocker said that he is still waiting for a diplomatic vision to end the war, not simply a military plan to deal with one repugnant tactic. “It seems like the policy right now is not to have a policy. Syria is not a military problem. It is a political problem.”
Diplomacy on Syria has stalled badly and, over the past year, bifurcated. Since 2012, the U.N. has convened a series of peace initiatives in Geneva. But the Assad government and various opposition groups (far from fully representative of the country’s deeply fractured militias and political factions) have balked on basics. Among the biggest issues are whether Assad can stay in power through a transition or even run in a future election. The rival sides have often refused even to sit in the same room. At a White House briefing on Saturday, a senior Administration official faulted the Assad government for refusing to participate, “aided and abetted by the Russians, who have been unwilling to exert the pressures to bring them to Geneva.”
In 2017, a second process was launched, by a troika—Russia, Iran, and Turkey. But several meetings also failed to produce anything tangible. The Trump Administration said it hopes that the strike will, as a byproduct, add more steam to diplomacy. At the White House briefing on Saturday, however, senior officials offered no new ideas about how that might happen.
“In all fairness, the attacks were not to change the basic order of battle on the ground or decapitate regime leaders,” Fred Hof, a former military officer and an ambassador who worked on Middle East issues for the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Obama Administrations, told me. “But it’s the follow-up that is everything. And, unless there is a strong diplomatic follow-up to this strike, it’s sound and fury signifying nothing. It’ll just be an empty gesture, as it was a year ago.”
Hof warned that the Assad regime may interpret the strike as a license to be even more brutal. “The focus is entirely on the weapon rather than the crime,” he said. “When Assad sees a bright red line being drawn against one particular compound, this man’s cynicism makes him believe he has a green light for every other damn thing.”
Given the tensions among the major powers following the strike, diplomacy seems ever further away. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin called the U.S.-led strike an “act of aggression.” The Russian foreign ministry charged that it was designed to derail an investigation into the chemical-weapons attack in Douma a week ago. Moscow has alleged that videos and photos of convulsing toddlers were a plot by foreign powers. Russia introduced a resolution in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday condemning the strikes. It failed. But the comments during the debate reflected the depth of divisions.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that President Trump informed her that “the United States is locked and loaded” and ready to strike again if Syria resumes its use of chemical weapons. “When our President draws a red line, our President enforces the red line,” she said. Haley also charged that Russia was complicit in Syria’s use of chemical weapons because it failed to insure that Damascus had destroyed its stockpile, as it promised, in 2013, in an international agreement brokered by the Obama Administration. The consequences of the second U.S. strike on Syria have yet to play out. As the Pentagon noted, U.S. forces deployed there are still trying to mop up the remnants of isis, which has a few thousand fighters in the eastern Euphrates Valley. Over the past week, the U.S. and its allies conducted air strikes against fifteen isis targets in Syria.
So “Mission Accomplished” is a dangerous boast, as President George W. Bush learned after declaring, in 2003, under a banner on a U.S. aircraft carrier, that all combat operations had concluded in Iraq. American forces remained in Iraq another eight years, more than four thousand Americans died, and, even after its withdrawal, in 2011, the United States had to return, in 2014, to help confront isis. Today we’re still there.
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”