Mission unaccomplished in Syria

Other than saving face for the US and Western Europeans, the allied bombing achieved little.
Tuesday 24/04/2018
A C-17 Globemaster III conducts combat airlift operations for US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria on April 13. (US Air Force)
A C-17 Globemaster III conducts combat airlift operations for US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria on April 13. (US Air Force)

US President Donald Trump declared “Mission Accomplished” in a tweet after he ordered a missile strike on Syrian facilities believed to be housing chemical agents. More than 100 missiles were reportedly fired at locations near Homs and on the outskirts of Damascus by US and allied forces. This was the largest attack on Syrian government forces by Western powers since the start of the Syrian civil war seven years ago.

The missiles were fired from warplanes from aircraft carriers of the US Navy 6th Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Some missiles were launched from submarines, military sources said. French and British planes took part in the raids. Some of those were based in the British sovereign military base at Akrotiri on Cyprus.

The raids were in retaliation for an attack on Douma allegedly by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces using chemical agents against a civilian population, killing at least 70 people. Chemical weapons have been banned since the first world war.

If the destruction of his country, the killing of tens of thousands and the displacement of half of Syria’s population failed to convince Assad to stop the war against his citizens, the bombing of a few sites is highly unlikely do so. It is as though the sides in the Syrian conflict are speaking different languages and have no access to translators.

Other than saving face for the United States and Western Europeans, who keep moving red lines drawn in the sand and feel frustrated by their inability to get anything done concretely in Syria, the allied bombing achieved little.

Trump did exactly what he said he would never do and what he ridiculed his predecessor for: disclosing military aims by announcing withdrawals and redeployments of US forces. Trump announced his intention of pulling out US combat forces from Syria then changed his mind and decided to maintain the current deployment numbers. This seems to have come at the recommendation of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Trump also announced his intention to bomb targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons programme but, despite the risk of sending allied pilots into hostile airspace and the cost of about $1.1 million per missile, the allies have little or nothing to show for their troubles. Assad remains at the helm of the Syrian battleship; it may be taking water and listing but it remains afloat.

“Nothing was accomplished beyond the symbolism of face-saving for those who drew the chemical weapons red lines in the sand,” said one Middle East expert. The status quo is preserved and Assad still rules with the help of the Russians.

Indeed, Trump wasted no time in claiming that every one of the 100 or so missiles fired by the United States and its allies reached their designated targets. This was denied by Damascus and Moscow, which claim to have shot down about 70% of the missiles.

Trump belittled media organisations that questioned the success of the short campaign, labelling their coverage “fake news.”

What exactly was this mission? Was it to bomb suspected targets so the United States and its allies could feel they have achieved something? Is there a policy on Syria? The short answer is, no, there is no policy established by the Trump administration.

Despite its shortcomings, there is hope the mission will prove to be more accomplished than two other US fiascos. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent a contingent of US Marines to Beirut to oversee the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from a city under siege by the Israelis. Reagan, declaring mission accomplished, pulled the multinational force out of Beirut prematurely. The result was the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

In 2003, George W. Bush staged a Hollywood-like production, arriving at the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln decked in a military flight suit in the co-pilot’s seat of a Navy S-3 Viking jet and made comments with a large “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.

Trump followed in the same overly confident manner armed with no tangible foreign policy on Syria and jumps the gun with his “mission accomplished.”