Mission Accomplished? Which Mission?
Terry H. Schwadron
April 14, 2018
Now that the missiles have launched and successfully destroyed three Syrian targets related to the storage and use of chemical weapons, let’s ask: What have we learned? What’s next?
· The U.S., British and French military are effective, once they know where they are aiming their weapons. From the Pentagon briefings, it would seem that there was actual damage to stored chemical weapons — — and care to avoid human damage. The “precision” weapons seemed pretty precise in avoiding Russians, who got a heads-up on where the missiles had been headed, or Iranians, as well as Syrians. And, the United States wins credibility when it acts in the name of morality and in tandem with allies.
· Nothing is finished here. Russian President Vladimir Putin, protector of Syria, called the missile strikes an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” against the UN charter. Syria said there would be more conflict, and Iran issued a standard broadside. Among other things, there U.N. Security Council met, with divided voices, showing the futility of depending too much on that body as referee. In any event, U.S. officials have been acknowledging that there is nothing in place to keep Syria from repeating its use of chemical weapons and that there are more in storage elsewhere, and that further actions threaten a broadened conflict in the region.
· Maybe the most remarkable aspect to the weekend strikes was that President Trump actually seemed to listen to the generals rather than relying solely on his unpredictable gut. While still sending boastful tweets claiming “mission accomplished,” Trump actually allowed a more thoughtful, careful response to the use of chemical weapons than he might have done. Days after seeming to order an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Syria, and then a turnabout threat by tweet, the president seems satisfied with a pinpoint set of strikes that do not alter the Syrian war landscape.
So, the hero of the weekend seemed to be Defense Secretary James Mattis for his considered thinking about a tactic that fits with a situation that lacks any strategy and for designing an attack that left few reported casualties. Three civilians were reported harmed in Homs.
The big question that remains, of course, is just what was accomplished? Without taking anything away from the effectiveness of our military, what is missing in this picture is an overall strategy, and how the United States figures into a roiled Mideast. As one headline said, the mission may be accomplished, but what is the actual mission?
It bothers me still, as it did a year ago, for example, that death by chemicals is considered heinous enough for the United States and allies to interfere. But continuing death by barrel bombs, by starvation, by street warfare that puts civilians, hospitals, food and daily life at risk. Nothing here is changed.
Nor did U.S. declarations of human caring because of chemical weapons use extend to help for the massive numbers of refugees created by the six years of war in Syria. Trump’s United States has all but closed its doors to refugees out of fears of a terrorist entering the country under cover of refugee status.
And Trump, whose only strategic statement in all this is aimed at elimination of ISIS as a singular agency of terrorism, remains unchanged despite reams of information that the Syrian insurgents represent a wide variety of causes that will continue to flourish and re-grow in organized and unorganized ways once the United States does withdraw.
As noted previously, the most recent meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders to carve up a post-war Syria left the United States and allies out of the conversation. Indeed, we have Russians digging in deep to preserve warm water port access in Syria, Iran looking to extend its influence in the region and Turkey focused on the North, where U.S.-backed Kurdish troops who have been front-line soldiers against ISIS now being the target for a Turkey that fears its own internal uprising.
In short, we have a complicated situation in Syria that demands complex thinking towards an approach by the United States that makes sense and deals with all aspects of the question. The absurdity of a singular, $100 million missile strike coming as we have another new national security apparatus just moving into the White House, a controversial new Secretary of State nominee swimming upwards towards Senate confirmation, and looming dates with simultaneous nuclear weapons showdowns in North Korea and Iran just feels overwhelming.
“America First” doesn’t reflect a complex grid for answers.
Let hope that perhaps Trump has learned something from actually listening to people who know what they are talking about.