How do Saturday’s US-led strikes on Syria differ from 2017?

US President Trump launched an attack on Damascus last year following a chemical attack, and little has changed since.

A British fighter jet
May has said Saturday's missile strike was not about 'regime change' [Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters]

The tripartite strikes on Syria, which have focused on discouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, will have a limited effect on Damascus’ long-term approach to the war, analysts say.

On Saturday, the US, UK and France launched strikes “on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities” in Syria after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the former rebel stronghold of Douma last weekend.

The US responded in a similar fashion last year in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town, Khan Sheikhoun, that killed scores of civilians.

It was the first direct military action the US took against Assad’s forces in the country’s long-running conflict.

Although analysts believe Washington is hopeful that Saturday’s response might be more effective in deterring Damascus from its chemical weapons stockpile, many remain doubtful about its long-term effect on the conflict.

“It is possible that Assad does stop the use of chemical weapons, especially if we [the US] make it clear that any further use will be met with an even larger and more immediate strike,” Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, told Al Jazeera.

“[But] for this [the attack] to be successful, it needs to be backed up with shrewd diplomacy and I am afraid that that is not really this administration’s great strength.”

The US, UK and France have all reiterated the limited dimensions targeted by the attacks and the unlikelihood of an escalation in their reactions to Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons.

While Trump identified the objective behind the air strikes as “a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons”, Theresa May, UK prime minister, said that the attack “was specifically about the use of chemical weapons” and nothing else.

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said on Saturday.

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he added.

When asked if Syria’s Assad could remain leader as long as he refrained from further use of chemical weapons, May said: “This was specifically about the use of chemical weapons.”

“There is a wider question on the future political solution for Syria and that is a matter that we will continue to pursue in diplomatic and political channels with our international partners and allies,” she added.

May has repeatedly said that the missile strike on Syria was not about “regime change”.

Commenting on their remarks, Cristol told Al Jazeera that this shared objective among the US, the UK and France can be achieved through the air strikes “by destroying his [Assad’s] chemical weapons programme, which is what was targeted… [or] more likely by showing him that there is a major cost to pay for using them.”

Bigger and better?

While official remarks about the air strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons resonate with Trump’s statements in 2017, analysts have pointed to key differences between the two.

In 2017, the Pentagon launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield in Homs province, while on Saturday, the US and its allies launched more than 100 missiles on Syria in a “one-time shot”.

According to Cristol, the key differences between the two responses not only lie in the “broader and more severe” response this time around but also the fact that the strikes “originated from multiple bases in multiple countries” and that targets were related to “the chemical weapons programme and stockpiles themselves, not just the single location that Assad’s attack was launched from”.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera that now “the Syrian regime will think twice before crossing the US red line of using chemical weapons”, but “the rationale of the strike is an open invitation to kill with conventional weapons”.

But following the statements of Pentagon chief James Mattis, who said the attack would be a “one-off”, and France‘s defence minister, who ruled out “confrontation” and “escalation” following its joint military operation with the US and UK, several observers are doubtful that much will change from the way it has been over the past year.

“If Trump and Mattis’ speeches are any indications, there likely won’t be much change in US policy towards Syria,” said Malak Chabkoun, an independent Middle East researcher based in the US.

“It is imperative to remember that the US has carefully avoided any signals of wanting to dislodge the regime at this point.

“While many Syrians welcomed the US targeting regime military bases, Syrians are also very well aware that any military actions short of dislodging the regime and removing occupiers Russia and Iran from Syria won’t change the status quo.”

Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor at the department of history at California State University, agreed.

The outcome of both [responses] is the same,” he says.

“Both are largely symbolic actions with little consequence on the ground. Both reveal that the US does not have a long-term strategy in Syra.”

Source: Al Jazeera