Last week’s US missile strikes won’t bring the Syrian conflict closer to resolution—but they still served a purposeby Tim Eaton / April 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
President Donald Trump’s authorisation of missile strikes on the Shayrat airbase in Syria last week has divided opinion. For some, the action was a proportionate response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For others, it is a strategically meaningless move that may serve to escalate the Syrian conflict rather than bring it closer to a resolution. How one assesses the effectiveness of the strikes is largely dependent on the context in which they are being judged.
Viewed in strict terms of chemical weapons deterrence, the missile strikes represent a minor success and allowed the Trump administration to show that, unlike the Obama administration, it was willing to act. The Assad regime’s sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta in August 2013 was a critical event in the conflict’s development. For the Obama administration, the subsequent deal that was struck with Russia to decommission the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal was a success. White House officials argued that the deal checked the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and also avoided the US being drawn in to an open-ended military intervention.
However, the regime began to violate the US-Russia deal from April 2014 onwards through the use of chlorine bombs. In Autumn 2016, a UN-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons commission found the regime responsible for three separate chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015. But, deliberative and ineffective attempts through the UN Security Council failed to punish the regime for its direct violation of the US-Russia deal. A British-French led draft resolution that proposed economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions on the regime petered out in January 2017 before reaching the Security Council, where Russia would have almost certainly used its veto in any case. Those who criticise last week’s missile strikes on the grounds that the Trump administration did not follow due process must accept the failures of previous attempts of enforcement through the UN Security Council.