By Barbara Franz
The response to a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, a week ago that killed at least 80 people occurred in the early morning hours on Saturday.
American, British and French cruise missiles, about 100 of them, were fired at storage and research facilities near Damascus and Homs, with the stated aim of destroying chemical weapons capabilities of the Assad regime.
How effective the strikes were in actually targeting these facilities is at this point unclear, despite President Trump’s misguided and inept statement “mission accomplished.”
If the Trump administration defines its objective as stopping the Syrian government from continued use of chemical weapons on its own people, current American involvement in the region will not guarantee this result.
John Brennan, CIA director in the Obama administration, said that these actions against Syria will probably not hinder Assad’s capabilities significantly.
On Friday night, however, Trump promised in a televised speech to the nation a sustained campaign to stop the Syrian government’s recurring use of chemical weapons, while also stressing the limits of America’s ability—and our willingness—to do more to stop the immense bloodletting that has devastated that country since 2011.
Indeed, chemical weapons don’t seem to be the worst that Syrians are enduring these days. The death toll from those multiple attacks has been small in comparison to the fatalities inflicted by crude and indiscriminate munitions such as widely-used barrel bombs.
If the Trump administration instead is moved by humanitarian concerns over the victims of the chemical attack, things look differently.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hailey, seemed to imply such concerns when she told the UN Security Council “the pictures of dead children [that] were not fake news” but rather, the result of the “Syrian regime’s barbaric inhumanity.”
Peter Baker of the New York Times points out that if the Trump administration truly was moved by humanitarian concerns over the victims of the war in Syria, it could have reversed the policy of barring virtually any new Syrian refugees from the United States.
The U.S. re-settled 15,479 Syrian refugees in 2016. But under Trump, that number decreased in 2017 to only 3,024. So far in 2018, only 11 Syrian refugees have been admitted.
In strategic terms, Peter Beaumont and Andrew Roth of The Guardian argue that the missile strikes ought to have demonstrated the military firepower of the Americans and their Western allies.
The strikes appear to have been staged with ample prior warning to Russia and (as France admitted) even to Syria.
The strikes were extremely limited in scope, leaving most of the Syrian military’s key assets in place and untouched. The cruise missiles fired by the U.S. B1-B Lancer heavy bombers, French Rafales, and U.K. Tornados GR4s – as well as from carriers in the Mediterranean – were among the world’s most modern weapons.
Beaumont and Roth estimate that, in 45 minutes, about $50 million-worth of weapons were launched. Thus, the U.S., France and the U.K. might have succeeded in demonstrating to Iran and Russia that their arsenals are large, and filled with high-tech and extremely efficient weapon systems!
These latest attacks may have starkly underlined once again how – despite the huge humanitarian cost of the war in Syria – the country has become the proving ground for some of the world’s most advanced weapons, deployed by the U.S. and Russia.
The escalation between the powers controlling Syria today no longer has much to do with the origins of the conflict. The battle between President Bashar Assad and his opponents has faded into the background.
As Christiane Hoffmann of Der Spiegel notes, the conflict is escalating because of the actions of regional powers including Iran, Israel and Turkey, as well as Russia and the U.S.
The most recent military strike will further exacerbate the situation. In the worst-case scenario, it even could result in a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
Humanitarian concerns and prevention of future chemical weapon attacks? Or a showcase for modern weapons? What was the international purpose? Or was the real objective domestic?
Only two things are certain for now: First, the strike’s domestic purpose was achieved. For a brief moment, Americans stopped paying attention to the disastrous scenario Trump is facing with the subpoena of his lawyer (and “fixer”) Michael Cohen, and former CIA director James Comey’s revelations in his new book A Higher Loyalty.
However, few people pay attention to the second certainty: Nobody seems to be concerned with the Syrians themselves any longer.
Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.