BEIRUT – The joint missile attack by the United States, the United Kingdom and France that targeted some of Syria’s suspected chemical weapons facilities on April 14 marked the first coordinated military action by western powers against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad since the start of the seven-year-long conflict.
However, the operation is not likely to dramatically alter the course of the war or change the balance of power on the ground, argue Syria Deeply’s editors Alessandria Masi and Hashem Osseiran in Syria Deeply’s latest Deeply Talks.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
Will Saturday’s Missile Attack Perpetuate the Conflict?
Hashem Osseiran: It’s a bit too soon to tell because a lot remains unclear. We do not know whether the U.S. plans to stay in Syria after the strike, and we don’t know how a diplomatic push by western powers to invigorate peace talks will pan out. However, our experts and members of our community, including Syrians on the ground, have told us that the strikes don’t alter the balance of power in Syria or change the trajectory of the war. In this sense, the strikes do not necessarily prolong the conflict.
Alessandria Masi: I agree, I don’t think it prolongs it. In terms of battles on the ground, nothing has changed. The day after, the missile strike evacuations from Eastern Ghouta continued, and pro-government forces captured the town shortly after. The Syrian government seems to be making moves towards southern Damascus, where it might potentially launch a new push against opposition groups and even the so-called Islamic State. Today, there were airstrikes in Homs. It seems to be business as usual on the ground in Syria, especially in terms of the government’s military strategy.
The takeaway from this is that chemical weapons are a brutal form of warfare, but they are not the main weapons used to kill civilians in Syria. They are also not the main way in which the Syrian government seizes territory. The chemical attack on Douma may have been the nail in the coffin, but it’s not the only reason Douma fell. Five years of siege and indiscriminate attacks had a much larger impact than chemical weapons. So I don’t think much will change for civilians, or for the government’s strategy.
Was Saturday’s Missile Attack Legal?
Masi: Under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), U.N. Security Council members can invoke the right to act in a situation where the government of a country has proven unwilling or unable to protect their own civilians. Probably, that case can be made in Syria, a few times over. But for this particular strike, the applicability of R2P is not immediately clear because the U.N. Security Council had not yet reached a formal decision about the strikes and about the chemical attack before the U.S., the U.K. and France decided to strike. This is the gray area that most people are referencing. With that being said, the responsibility to protect has been used irresponsibly in the last decade and has been used for reasons other than it was intended for. We may see the same play out in Syria. But in terms of legality, Syria remains a gray area for much of the international framework. Much of the policies and standards that exist out there have been ignored or twisted over the last seven years. This makes it hard to hold one party accountable when no one else is being held to account.
What, If Anything, Has Changed Since the Strike by the U.S., the U.K. and France on Syria?
Osseiran: What we are seeing is western powers trying to inject some form of diplomatic momentum by invigorating a push for peace talks. We are also seeing the U.S. considering whether or not to pull out from Syria, although it remains unclear whether a final decision has been taken in that regard. We are also seeing Russia, Syria and Iran really coming together and projecting a united front in response to the attacks. We also saw the U.S. promising to impose new sanctions on Russia, before the White House walked back on those promises. But concretely on the ground, we have not seen seismic changes. Bashar al-Assad may be more reluctant to carry out chemical weapons attacks in the future, but beyond that, Saturday’s missile attacks have not changed the trajectory of the war or altered the balance of power. Assad is still on his way to a victory.
What Does an Invigorated Peace Push Mean for Russian-backed Peace Talks in Astana and U.N.-sponsored Peace Talks in Geneva?
Osseiran: The U.S., the U.K. and France have drawn up a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for invigorated peace talks and “demands” from the Syrian government to engage in peace talks “in good faith, constructively and without pre-conditions.” However, Russia may veto such a draft resolution, as it has done many times in the past to protect its Syrian ally. But as of now, we do not know for sure what Russia’s position will be. Nonetheless, a Russian veto would mean that nothing will move forward in Geneva, and Astana will continue to exist as a rival platform to U.N.-led peace talks. Russia is also likely to continue to invest all its political capital into Astana as a way to remove focus from U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva. We have heard statements from Russia, Iran and the Syrian government that suggest this. All three states have said that Saturday’s strikes will only undermine the peace process and adversely impact attempts to broker a political solution. This may be a sign that peace talks in Geneva will not be pulled out of their stalemate.
Masi: I think we all need to keep in mind, when considering the Syria strike, that this move was not motivated by the goal of regime change or the goal of political transition. Because the joint military action by the U.S, the U.K. and France was not driven by that, I don’t think the political process is going to be driven by the goal of regime change either. We haven’t seen the final draft of the resolution by the U.S., the U.K. and France, but what it calls for is good faith engagement by the Syrian government. This is in stark contrast to Security Council resolutions drafted years ago that demanded a full-on transition. So what we see is that the goal is not so much regime change anymore.
What Stands to Change on the Ground if the U.S. Pull Out 2,000 Troops?
Osseiran: If the U.S. withdraws its approximately 2,000 troops, it would be very significant for Syria. First, it would undermine the message that the U.S. and its allies were trying to send with Saturday’s attack, which is showing Assad and Russia that the U.S. and its allies are still players in this game, and Assad does not have a free hand to do whatever he pleases. A pullout would also throw into question the fate of Kurdish groups in Syria and the status of territory that is under their control. Looking at what happened in Afrin, we can see how exposed Kurdish-held areas can be to attacks when they are not protected by Washington. So if the U.S. pulls out of places like Manbij, which Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack, we may see some worrying developments there. Kurdish groups in these areas may even be forced to side with the Syrian government if they have no other protector.
A withdrawal would also weaken whatever little leverage the U.S. may have over the Syrian government in peace talks. For example, U.S. partners in Syria currently control some of the biggest oil and gas fields in the country. It is important for the Syrian government to recapture these areas, but it can not do so as long as Washington is there. The U.S. can leverage that as long for as it is on the ground. But if it leaves, then it can’t do that anymore.
A withdrawal may also prove detrimental for southern Syria, parts of which are protected by the only de-escalation zone in the country backed by the U.S. There have already been some attacks, and there have been warnings of a potential escalation in the area. With the U.S. out of Syria, the government may feel more emboldened to heighten attacks.
Masi: We should really take any claims of us pulling out with few grains of salt. There are a lot of questions the U.S has to answer to itself if it decides to do that. And Hashem mentioned some of them, but mainly, the U.S. has bases in Syria and operations on Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq. It has a significant amount of oil fields that it has taken over and now controls. It also has quite a few influential allies who would not take kindly to the U.S. pulling out and leaving it to, as Donald Trump said, the “other people.”
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Deeply Talks is a regular feature, bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to examine the latest developments in the Syrian conflict, with a view towards the long-term prospects for peace building and stability. To join future Deeply Talks, make sure you are signed up to our newsletter below.