A Syrian soldier inspects the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district north of Damascus, during a press tour organised by the Syrian government after US-led strikes - AF
CAIRO – 15 April 2018: Just a few weeks after the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-President George W. Bush gave a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner which donned the words: “Mission Accomplished”. These words, although never actually uttered by Bush, would grow to haunt his presidency as the controversial U.S.-led war faced obstacle upon obstacle. This premature and public declaration of success, a victory if you will, was dragged into the sand as the Iraqi insurgency persisted.
President Donald Trump on the other hand, known for his outbursts that often fail to take into account historical context, political correctness and simple common sense, failed to take note of the controversy surrounding the words. Following the recent strikes on Syria, coordinated by the U.S., France and the U.K., Trump declared “Mission Accomplished” on his Twitter account the next morning.
Days of warning allowed the Syrian army to move key hardware, and it wasn’t until on the morning of April 14 that U.S., British and French forces
with continued air strikes. Three sites were targeted: Barzeh research and development centre in Damascus; Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage site, west of Homs; and Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker, also west of Homs. They were targeted in response to an alleged
that killed dozens of people in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on April 7. This was the biggest intervention by western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since war broke out in 2011, with 103 missiles being fired from ships and manned aircraft as part of a coordinated campaign.
But, what does “mission accomplished" even mean? The words, which likely left many people in the U.S. government, congress, intelligence services and military with their heads in their hands, is ambiguous in every aspect: what was the “mission”, and what does it mean for it to be “accomplished”?
During the presidency of Mr. Trump, the mission has been to defeat ISIS. Trump ended support for rebels, initiated by Obama, who severed the then-U.S. strategy of regime change, a policy that was never to be accepted by the international community following the Libyan experience. Instead, a coordinated and prolonged campaign to militarily destroy ISIS has been the focus of the U.S. intervention, and Trump has vowed to withdraw the U.S. from the conflict once this has been achieved; to the dismay of many of his military advisors.
It is apparent that not even U.S. officials are aware of what the strikes were intended to achieve, and what the U.S. strategy in Syria is. U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, a man who often presents a reserved persona in contrast to the commander-in-chief’s gung-ho attitude,
the attacks as a one-time event. Nikki Haley on the other hand, the U.S. ambassador in the United Nations, said that the United States remains
, in a direct warning to Assad and his supporters against using chemical weapons.
Video of U.S.-led attack
It is generally accepted that, alongside the anti-ISIS military campaign, the U.S. and its allies are not interested in regime change in Syria. Rather, a weak yet stable Assad would better help serve U.S. interests. A weak Assad, and consequently a fragile Syria, would allow for the U.S. to counter its larger Iranian enemy and Russia foe, in addition to playing the Gulf States and maintaining their support. The U.S. anti-chemical weapons policy has been inconsistent and morally incoherent, but Trump’s decision to act after the recent alleged attack in Douma shows that the U.S. is aware of the rapidly changing tides in the country, and needs a justification to that its capacity to act militarily has not dwindled. Although Trump has been consistent in saying that the U.S. should withdraw and "Let the other people take care of it now," the U.S. and its most important allies in the region are deeply concerned with the growing Iranian threat in Syria.
If the U.S. genuinely cared about the Syrian people over its regional power aspirations, then its anti-chemical weapons policy would have been consistent. Although more determined than Obama, Trump has acted just twice against the use of chemical weapons during his presidency; a time in which dozens of chemical attacks have been alleged. However, how does the tragedy caused by chemical weapons differ from that caused by barrel-bombs, death squads, and incendiary weapons? Repeated indiscriminate use of other unconventional weapons in Syria vastly outweighs the destruction caused by chemical weapons, yet only now is action taken.
Has this newfound mission to put an end to Assad’s use of chemical weapons been “accomplished” by the airstrikes? The answer is only "may be". If the strikes were intended to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, then they would have been more widespread, targeting a far greater number of chemical and military installations, and without the substantial warning that was given.
Smoke billows in the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, on April 7, 2018, after Syrian regime troops resumed a military blitz to pressure rebels to withdraw – AFP
What is certain is that Assad has been punished; a message has been sent without drawing the U.S. closer into the conflict, but may set an important precedent. Using the alleged chemical attack to legitimise the use of force amongst its allies, Assad has faced retribution for his indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Albeit minor, and a far cry from what Assad deserves for his unrelenting brutality against the Syrian people, the presence in the Mediterranean Sea of the largest U.S. air and naval strike force since the Iraq War in 2003 indicates that U.S. oversight of affairs in Syria will likely remain, as will the capacity to damage Assad’s forces once again.
, the missile attacks on three chemical-related facilities in Syria left enough others intact to allow the Assad regime to continue using the banned weapons against civilians if it chooses to. Accordingly, the U.S. will find it important to maintain its military presence if it anticipates further chemical attacks, and wants to use them to justify striking the regime. The question of whether Assad is likely to use chemical weapons again requires a closer look into the Syrian government’s, and its allies, strategic objectives in the country, region and the world. Nevertheless, Assad has almost won the war and much of the fiercest fighting is over, meaning the rewards for using chemical weapons are much reduced.
The success of the mission will be determined by Assad, as repeated use of chemical weapons would show the futility of the deterrence. In the bigger picture other interests and objectives are at play, and the U.S. is using the plight of the Syrian people to legitimise military intervention, making way for a possible shift in the U.S.’s Syria policy if the situation demands it.