After much argument and delay, American, British and French military strikes against Syrian regime targets were finally begun on Saturday morning. But the strikes will only be worthwhile if they are the forerunner of a coherent, integrated Syria policy and not a pointless repletion of the largely symbolic, one-off cruise missile attack in April 2017.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford urged caution while Donald Trump and John Bolton, his new national security adviser, allegedly pressed for quicker and wider action. Thus far, it seems the generals are winning out on the immediate action.
The military is not necessarily opposed to strong action but rather is averse to reckless and pointless ones. Their most important point was that any military action needs to be part of a cohesive and comprehensive Syria policy. It’s a valid and vital objection.
This military response to Bashar Al Assad’s latest chemical weapons atrocity should have not only been more robust, but also more focused and consequential, than it has been up until now to avoid repeating the 2017 scenario. An early strike shortly after the chemical attack could easily have symbolically “punished” Mr Al Assad for having made Mr Trump look ridiculous, and even complicit, by inflicting the atrocity soon after the US president’s vow to withdraw all American forces from Syria.
If it were just a matter of expunging any such impression, a quick US strike against largely symbolic targets could have been launched in short order. The delay should have meant, and could still mean, this time is different.
Given the time that passed after it was effectively announced, the strike won’t have much of a repudiating quality if it proves as limited and symbolic as last year’s. But the US actions so far are not vastly different, and leave almost all of the key regime targets, let along anything connected to Iran and Hezbollah, untouched.
That may not be the end of the story but if it is left at that it would look minimal and weak-willed rather than tough and determined.
Moreover, the delay, and Mr Trump’s inexplicable Twitter warnings, gave Syria and Russia ample opportunity to prepare, particularly by clustering Syrian government assets next to Russian ones or civilian “soft targets”.
In order to be consequential and worthwhile, this action must, at least for Washington, eventually be about more than just chemical weapons. Even if some early participants like UK Prime Minister Theresa May insist it is only that, for Washington it must be an opening salvo of a new US strategy for altering the balance of power in Syria and ensuring that Iran, in particular, does not emerge from the conflict as a huge victor.
Mr Trump was apparently dissatisfied with how limited the military action options the Pentagon presented to him appeared, though he was seemingly persuaded. The president reportedly wanted to strike harder and make sure that Russia and Iran also paid some costs. That hasn’t happened at all. Yet.
The military not only wanted to avoid an escalation, but complained that any major action is pointless outside a broader strategy.
Both sides made good points that should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.
Mr Trump may prevail on the size and scope of the attack but only if there are additional salvos in the coming days. And the military and others can, and must, use this crucial opportunity to force Washington to make a set of difficult choices that Mr Trump and, for the most part, Mr Obama before him, studiously avoided.
The generals are right that they and others can’t create an effective strategy if they don’t know what the goals are. At long last Washington must now decide what it wants in Syria beyond obliterating ISIS.
That must begin with permanently denying Iran control of key areas along Syria’s border with Iraq, particularly in Al Bukamal and Al-Tanf, where land corridor routes from Tehran to the Mediterranean could be consolidated. Then, Iran and Hezbollah’s grip on Syria must be steadily weakened.
Washington must decide how much further it will let Turkey go in attacking Kurdish enclaves and find a modus vivendi between these two US allies.
And, finally, Washington and Moscow must come to terms about the endgame in Syria, which can’t be done if the United States continues to cede the field to Russia almost entirely while annually lobbing in a few meaningless bombs. The war in much of Syria may be effectively over, at least for now. But the post-conflict landscape is just starting to develop.
It would be bizarre for Washington to launch this military action and follow it with a total withdrawal from Syria, handing the country to Russia and Iran.
Mr Trump says his priorities in the Middle East are fighting terrorism and confronting Iran. Syria is the epicentre of both battles. He desperately needs a focused and coherent Syria strategy, having inherited an indescribable mess from Mr Obama.
This US military response in Syria presents a crucial opportunity for finally starting to get it right. But the highly limited action so far isn’t very encouraging.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC