I am writing this at dawn, on the east coast of the United States, as the nation wakes to news of the launch by US guided missile destroyers in the Mediterranean of maybe as many as 60 Tomahawk missiles against Shayrat Airbase near Homs. It is in apparent retaliation for the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun launched from that base three days ago. This was exactly the action we expected to see from the Obama administration in August 2013, after a sarin attack by Syrian government forces on opposition-held areas in Ghouta, the old oasis surrounding Damascus. In both places, the descriptions of dying civilians convulsing and frothing at the mouth, lips blue and breathing laboured, spread across the internet. Same symptoms, different treatment.
In 2013, the politics of intervention in Syria were complicated. In the UK, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party seemed to have reneged on a deal to support a vote in the House of Commons. The Tory whips mishandled their own party management. In the US, the crossing by Bashar al-Assad’s forces of President Barack Obama’s red lines seemed only to bring into conscious focus the president’s profound personal reluctance to do anything much in the Middle East that could destabilise negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal, or that would make him look like his predecessor George W Bush.
The joint UK-US failure to enforce their own publicly enunciated rules of the game brought the two countries and their politics into disrepute in the region. The failure also encouraged Iran, and Russia – which moved against Ukraine shortly afterwards – and brought unexpected succour to the murderous regime in Damascus. And it helped persuade many opposition fighters on the ground that their fate lay in their own hands. Strength was to be found in the better-resourced and more numerous jihadi factions of Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, rather than in smaller groups with clearly unreliable Western support. It was a deliberate and, in my view, disastrous refusal to shape a conflict that was consequential for regional and global security then and is even more consequential now. Such a move carried risks. But since when are issues of foreign policy and national security risk-free?
So is this payback time for Assad and payback time for Obama? That depends. The situation in Syria today is not what it was in the summer of 2013. Iran and Russia have stabilised the situation in favour of Assad. Western powers – including most recently the Trump administration – have been talking about a negotiated settlement that does not necessarily involve Assad’s standing down. The Russians, not the US, have been convening meetings of key parties. The Gulf states have started hedging their bets. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt has come down on the side of order and discipline by tacitly backing Assad – even if it is the order and discipline of the graveyard. And in an alarmingly successful sleight of hand, the nightmare that Assad and his apologists have consistently conjured and consistently sought to procure – an armed opposition dominated by a handful of powerful and savage jihadi groups – has come to pass.
In 2013, a sustained campaign of targeted strikes against the airbases and air assets being used by the Assad regime to terrorise and kill civilians would probably have helped stop that killing. It probably would have weakened the ability of Damascus and its Iranian allies to contain and then defeat the opposition in a number of key areas. It would not have led to victory for the latter: they were too fragmented and it would hardly have been desirable anyway, given the nature of some of the groups involved. But it could have prepared the way for a US-shaped and Gulf Co-operation Council-backed initiative to achieve a settlement. And it would have sent a signal to Iran and Hezbollah that the US was serious about preserving its traditional role as arbiter of conflicts in the Middle East and was prepared to enforce its will militarily if necessary – something that would apply to any deal with Iran on the nuclear file as well.
It’s not too late to reclaim some of that power. But it will be far more difficult than in 2013. First, the balance of forces decisively favours Iran and Hezbollah now. Iran now makes no secret of its direct support for certain Shia militias in Iraq, which also act as auxiliaries for Iranian forces in Syria and occasionally and opportunistically in Yemen. Hezbollah has become a far more conventionally capable force – while retaining its ability to function unconventionally, as a mass political movement, as an instrument of revanchist sectarian mobilisation and as a global criminal enterprise. It has been restocked with missiles and other military equipment by Iran, and reportedly also by Russia. Some Israeli officials fear that it may at some point gain access to Assad’s chemical weapons stocks – which would represent a secular shift in its ability to harm Israel.
Meanwhile, the US has made the military destruction of Islamic State its priority. To achieve this, it has aligned itself in Syria and Iraq with Russia and indeed Iran. Acknowledged or not, support from both these countries will be necessary if this aim is to be achieved at an acceptable domestic cost. Doing so will not produce peace: the appeal of IS and its analogues will remain powerful without a settlement that reintegrates key elements of the Sunni communities of Iraq and Syria back into some sort of reconstructed politics. And in neither place is there much sign that this is on the cards. Neither Iran nor Russia shows any interest in it. And the Trump administration seems to see most things through a military lens these days.
You would also need to sustain targeted military interventions in Syria in order to make these recent strikes meaningful. Cratered runways can be repaired, and carbonised air frames replaced. In any case, most of the air activity over Syria on the regime side is Russian, not Syrian. The Russians also provide air defence systems, which they may now choose to reinforce in response – and as a challenge.
So the issue remains one of political will and a proper plan. The White House called for such a plan for Syria some time ago. It has not yet appeared. If and when it does, and when the US decides how it will respond to almost certain retaliation by Iranian proxies and further tests of its purpose by Russia (apparently forewarned but still furious), that will be the moment to make a judgement on these Tomahawk strikes. Are they part of a wider, well-considered, effective and resilient retooling of US policy? Or are they merely a belated display of force, designed to fill front pages, distract attention for a moment from bitter political disputes in Washington and steal a reputational march on the Obama administration and its legacy of unimaginative and self-righteous caution?
John Jenkins is the corresponding director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East, and a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University