April 16, 2018

IntelBrief: Meaningful and Meaningless Airstrikes in Syria 

A Syrian soldier films the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File).
  • Early April 14, the U.S., U.K., and France struck three sites in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s latest chemical weapons attack.
  • The over 100 fired missiles were intended to degrade the regime’s chemical weapons’ capability, the same rationale as last year’s missile strike.
  • The attacks were more than symbolic but unlikely to change the trend of the war, despite tweets by President Trump.
  • The West has a decreasing impact on how the Syrian war unfolds, as Russia and Iran continue to exert a far more direct influence in the catastrophe.


After taunts by President Trump that missiles were ‘on their way,’ the United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, launched at least 105 missiles at three sites in Syria on April 14. The strikes were connected to the Assad regime’s ongoing chemical weapons attacks against its civilians. The primary target appears to have been the Barzah Research and Development Center outside Damascus, where at least 76 missiles struck in the latest attempt to either disrupt or deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against civilians. The Him Shinshar chemical weapons complex to the west of Homs was also hit. Yet precisely because the strikes were so hyped up, especially by the taunts of President Trump, it is unclear how consequential the attack will be. It is more than likely that the strikes will do nothing to impact the seven-year war.

The U.S. finds itself in a bind both of its own making and that of regional forces out of its control. The attack was hyped as a ‘game changer’ but it will likely not change anything, nor was it designed to. The April 7 gas attack in Douma generated momentum for the West to act because the Assad regime had killed civilians in a manner that many would say justified a response—but the regime killing civilians was nothing new. Some 450,000 people have died in the war: the vast majority of those were civilian deaths and most were killed by conventional bombs and bullets and by deprivation and starvation. The West’s self-imposed ‘red-line’ to respond with force when chemical weapons are used is arbitrary—not just as a method of murder but when and if to respond, as, according to the U.S., the Assad regime has used such weapons at least 50 times.

The U.S. clearly stated that its goal for the attack was to stop future chemical weapons attacks; not to deeper involve itself in the civil war. A similar rationale was used for the U.S. cruise missile strike last year. This time the targeting was even more specific and restrictive: the attacks did not target even the airfields from which the regime launches its attacks on civilians. The attacks were thus not designed to escalate a war with the other parties involved in the conflict, especially Russia. The effect of this highly restricted military action on the Assad regime and even non-state actors like Hizbollah—whether they will be emboldened by Western countries’ obvious preference to exert some influence, but mostly stay out of the fray—remains to be seen.

The Syrian quagmire allows for no good options or easy answers. The most pragmatic course includes a plan for how to counter what will likely be long-term Russian and Iranian influence in Syria going forward. A concerted push to a negotiated resolution to the civil war remains the international community’s best chance at helping the Syrian people.


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