Early on Saturday, the US, France and the UK launched strikes on various targets in Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. A year ago, the US also launched a similar missile strike after a chemical weapons attack.
The outcome of both is the same; both a largely symbolic actions with little consequence on the ground. Both reveal that the US does not have a long-term strategy in Syria. While US President Donald Trump had suggested a possibly open-ended aerial campaign against Syria, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated that this was a “one-off” attack.
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This dissonance in US policy to Syria reveals a lack of a coherent strategy, in contrast to Russia and Iran which have demonstrated a steadfast determination in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These attacks will not affect their long-term goal of victory.
In this regard, the Syrian state could use chemical weapons again, because their battlefield value in reaching this victory against stubborn rebel holdouts outweighs the risk of US air strikes in the future.
Chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime
Historically, chemical weapons allow states to defeat insurgents ensconced in mountainous or urban terrains. Since urban fighting is costly in terms of regime manpower, and since defenders usually have an advantage when in an urban setting, chemical weapons can terrorise rebels and the civilians in their territory.
In the case of the Eastern Ghouta attacks of 2013 and 2018, the use of chemical weapons was most likely deployed to break a micro-stalemate in an area where the rebel defences had proven to be tenacious.
If the Syrian regime would need to use this weapon in the future, the benefit would outweigh the risks. The outside world might not act again (as has happened in the past), or strike, just like earlier today, with cruise missiles, which would not affect the military situation on the ground.
The Russian response
Before last year’s strike, advance warning had been given to Russia, who, in turn, informed the Syrians that the missiles would be launched and the airfield was evacuated beforehand. This year attention was paid not to attack sites where Russian forces could be stationed.
Russia has been on edge in relation to the US in Syria, especially after US aircraft targeted Russian mercenaries in February.
The question remains, will Russian President Vladimir Putin take two US slights sitting down, especially after Trump taunted Russia with tweets?
Surprisingly, the answer might be “yes”. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime are on the brink of victory and would not want to jeopardise the status quo by taunting the US immediately with a retaliatory gesture. They might take this second, symbolic Western military strike as just that, and continue unimpeded with their military offensive scoring the long-term strategic victory in a complicated proxy conflict.
Last April, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base in the Homs province, the purported site of where the nerve agent sarin was loaded onto aeroplanes that attacked a village in the rebel-held Idlib province. The Saturday attack was to retaliate for the deployment of chlorine gas in the rebel-held area of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta.
This year, British and French participated in the strike, boosting the impact of the US military attack targeting Syria, striking numerous sites related to chemical weapons production and deployment, instead of just one airfield.
Like in 2017, the US used the same Tomahawk cruise missile, fired from afar, by US naval vessels in the Mediterranean. A slight change this year was the US deployed the B-1 bomber to fire a similar version of this missile, but at a distance that meant the plane did not have to enter Syrian airspace.
After both attacks, media commentary in the US described the cruise missiles that struck Syria as “standoff strike” weapons. This terminology is used to reassure US, UK, and French domestic audiences that their governments are not going to introduce “boots on the ground” in Syria and commit themselves to a much larger conflict that could involve action against Russia.
Ironically, the word “standoff” also reveals how the strikes have little impact on ending the cycle of killing in Syria. “Standoff” is not just a description of weapons, but the trio’s approach to the entire conflict, attempting to dictate events on the ground, safely from the air.
Different motivations for the strike
Operation Desert Storm was the first time the US sought to shape the Middle East from the air. One could now add the UK and France as actors seeking to do the same.
All three sought to prove to the international community that they would take concrete action to discipline a country that uses weapons of mass destruction. However, it is also hard to discount that the US motivation for an attack differs from the UK and France’s.
Trump began this week facing a domestic crisis as FBI agents raided the home of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in the early morning of April 9, which disappeared from the headlines with the imminent air strikes.
It would be easy to attribute to Trump’s foreign policy decisions to simple domestic drama, as news cycles change rapidly and international crises can only dominate the headlines so long. Nonetheless, the rapid fluctuation of events surrounding the White House is indicative of volatility surrounding the node of US power.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.