As British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the BBC: “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that doesn’t further escalate tension in the region.”
Unfortunately, it’s not even likely to succeed in its very limited aim of deterring Assad from patching up his chemical weapons facilities and using them again.
Three reasons. First, Assad’s latest use of chemical weapons only confirmed their power. After the chemical attack on the hardy holdout rebels in the town of Douma, the rebels agreed to surrender within a couple of days. Assad won. Chemical weapons work.
Second, Assad has proved that he’s unconcerned with consequences. After US President Donald Trump ordered a similar missile strike on Syria a year ago for using chemical weapons, it was only about six weeks before Assad’s forces were using them again. Assad has used them repeatedly since.
Third, he knows that the West won’t be able to sustain its interest for much longer. Only two weeks ago Trump declared that “I want to get out” of Syria.
It’s just over a century since Britain, France and Russia agreed on the great imperialist carve-up of the Middle East through the Sykes-Picot agreement. Russia soon lost much of its influence in the region and the US later moved in forcefully with its British and French allies.
Now that the repressed hopes of the Arab world have turned to irrepressible anger and the US no longer depends on Middle Eastern oil, Britain, France and America are leaving the region and Russia is back. Moscow, the key Assad ally, is on the winning side.
The region’s future will now be fought out with Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as the dominant powers, competing to fill the vacuum.
America will be largely a spectator. The good news for Australia is that it’s less likely to be called up for deputy’s duties in Middle Eastern theatres of war. The bad news is that a region notorious for strife is heading into an ever greater vortex of violence.
Trump has made his point. It wasn’t primarily about the man he aptly calls Animal Assad, however. Trump “has made the Middle East an extension of the domestic political calculations” as Stephen Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations put it.
His chief interest is political differentiation from Barack Obama, who famously declared that it would be a “red line” for Assad to use chemical weapons but who stood idle as Assad crossed the line again and again.
Trump mouthpiece Sarah Sanders said as much: “Last night the President put our adversaries on notice: when he draws a red line he enforces it.”
The missile strike by the US, with Britain and France, was like a man whose trousers have fallen down, exposing him to ridicule, hitching them back up with a show of great dignity before he leaves the room. It may be futile but it makes him feel better.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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