It was either very brave or very foolish to adopt the “Mission Accomplished” slogan that hung behind President George W. Bush as he stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the early days of the Iraq war. Although the President never used those words, they were indelibly linked to the fortunes of the United States in the course of the Iraq war. For President Donald Trump to have tweeted it is a poke at the very principle of conventional wisdom.
The US/UK/FR strike on Syria’s Him Shinshar (both the bunker and the storage depot) and the Barzeh “scientific research center,” (the location of chemical weapons research) was a resounding success. Not designed for “regime change” or to end the Syrian civil war, the raid was intended to punish the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, its protector Russia and its banker Iran. It was to make it harder to do it again. It was to uphold one of the few areas of international consensus in warfare – that CW use is forbidden. That mission was indeed accomplished, but the expected chorus of naysayers would have you believe that it was: A military failure; A political failure; Or both.
On the military side, as usual, the Russians were out of the gate first, claiming the chemical attack on Duma – for which the allied raid was retaliation – had been staged by the British, and then that Syrian air defenses had destroyed 71 of 103 missiles the allies launched. The Pentagon warned on Saturday, “The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun…There has been a 2,000% increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours.”
The Guardian (UK) reported:
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military said the strikes had not caused any casualties and that Syrian military facilities suffered only minor damage… Russia said its advisers had spent the last 18 months completely rebuilding the Syrian air defence system, and said the high number of intercepted rockets spoke to “the high effectiveness of the weaponry in Syria and the excellent training of Syrian servicemen prepared by our specialists.”
Which is why it is a good idea not to pay too much attention to Russia’s immediate pronouncements.
Ignoring the Russian claim of British involvement in the attack on civilians, the White House statement was very specific in its delineation of where and when the Syrian regime had used chemicals, and assessed “with confidence” that Sarin had been used in the Duma attack.
A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin… doctors and aid organizations on the ground in Duma reported the strong smell of chlorine and described symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin… These symptoms, in addition to the dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries reported, suggest that the regime also used sarin in its attacks on April 7.
As for the efficacy of the attack, “This is going to set the program back for years. We attacked the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program,” said the Pentagon’s Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. It isn’t hard to believe when you look at the aftermath here and here. The strikes were precise and devastating. LTG McKenzie addressed the issue of Syrian air defenses, saying that after the allied attack, “Syria shot 40 large missiles into the air using ballistic trajectory, without guidance. When (you) shoot iron into the air without guidance, it’s going to come down somewhere.”
As for the politics of the raid, those who thought it was supposed to topple the Assad government, or end the Syrian civil war, or result in the occupation of Damascus, were not paying attention.
That would include British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbin, who claimed to be concerned about the legality of the strike: “The legal basis … would have to be self defence or the authority of the UN Security Council. The humanitarian intervention is a legally debatable concept at the present time.”
Israel’s left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz opined:
Assad has already scored another victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of his own people and the support of the entire Arab world. In this context, the strike… was more a failure of the ad-hoc coalition led by U.S. President Donald Trump than Assad’s victory. The coalition hasn’t learned that a Western strike on an Arab capital will never bring its citizens into the streets to celebrate or turn public support in their favor, no matter how despotic the leader.
But Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters, “Our goal has not changed. Our goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS….but Assad’s actions were beyond the pale. We do not seek conflict in Syria but we cannot allow such grievous violations of international law. We will not stand by passively while Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, ignores international law.”
President Trump said, “To Iran and to Russia I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children? The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants, and murderous dictators.”
On the heels of a magnificent weekend of work by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Russia introduced a resolution of condemnation of the allied raid in the Security Council. The resolution failed, with only Russia, China, and Bolivia voting in favor of condemnation. Twelve other countries voted against or abstained.
Politically and militarily, then, it can reasonably be said that America’s limited mission was accomplished.