The April 13, 2018, American-British-French strike on Syria was wider in scope and effect than that of April 2017 on Shairat Air Base; both conducted as punishment for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and intended to send a message of deterrence. But while the political impact of the latest action appears to be limited and is not expected to force the regime to seek a solution for the Syrian crisis through a political transition, it has shown again that the Trump Administration is still bereft of a comprehensive strategy for Syria.
Soon after the strikes ended on suspected chemical weapons sites, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared defiant and began military action against rebel-held areas in the south. Russia rejected the rationale for the strikes and showed that it is not interested in offering any concessions, especially as Trump announced that the mission was accomplished. Indeed, Russia saw the strikes as a ruse by the president to tamp down the negative media coverage of his past and to show that he is different from former President Barack Obama regarding red lines. It also saw that French President Emmanuel Macron needed to show his resolve and that British Prime Minister Teresa May merely wanted to avenge the poisoning an ex-Russian spy on British soil.
What is required now is a firmer and stronger response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria since Assad will not be deterred from using them and all other means of war against civilians in areas outside of his control. More regime assets should be struck such as military headquarters and sensitive positions as well as personnel involved in attacking unarmed civilians. There also should be some thinking of attacking symbolic targets such as presidential palaces so that the regime and its supporters may be pressed and compelled to compromise.
Specifically, a Kosovo-like military campaign should be pursued to weaken the Syrian regime’s fighting capabilities in preparation for a political solution. In 1999, the Clinton Administration led a NATO mission against Yugoslav forces in Kosovo that lasted weeks and resulted in former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic suing for peace. Russia and China opposed that mission at the United Nations Security Council just as they would today against Syria’s regime. But the humanitarian reasons for the Kosovo action are now many times more pronounced in the Syrian case; hundreds of thousands have died, eight million Syrians have been made refugees, and six to seven million others have been displaced inside the country.
A political solution would then follow military action against the Syria regime. The international community should form a joint United Nations-Arab League commission that would devise and implement a political solution and supervise the delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria. Importantly, the commission should work on mechanisms for a post-Assad political arrangement that guarantees a transition to a democratic system. Absent the international community’s involvement in changing conditions in Syria, the Syrian regime will once again resume its onslaught, including chemical and conventional weapons, against Syrian civilians.