With now customary bombast, Donald Trump tweeted “Mission Accomplished” yesterday afternoon, declaring the launching of more than 100 missiles on Syria to be an unqualified success.
In partnership with the French and British governments, the US president led an offensive on the Middle East state early in the hours of yesterday morning following the use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma.
The fact that Trump was echoing the ill-fated words of George W Bush 15 years earlier when he spoke about Iraq, may have been lost on him. Despite this, he has some reasons to see this action as a success – at least for now.
The narrative is clear: the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable under any circumstances. The US fired 59 missiles last year after Syria used deadly sarin gas on civilians. But with that message having failed to land, Trump would have looked weak had he failed to respond this time.
Now, with Prime Minister Theresa May compelled to return US support against Syria’s ally, Russia, over the Salisbury poisoning, and French President Emmanuel Macron keen to assert France’s global leadership, the three allies acted in concert.
The US, UK and France attacked three government sites, targeting what they said were chemical weapons facilities. It was the most significant intervention by Western powers in seven years of Syria’s civil war. Yet it is unlikely to change anything.
While there were strong words from Russia and Syria, there is reason to believe that neither of those countries, or indeed their ally Iran, will be too concerned by the strikes.
In fact, this can be regarded as a face-saving exercise. Trump gets to talk tough. Britain and France look like global players who won’t stand for chemical weapons. But Russia suffers no losses of personnel or equipment and care is taken to avoid inflaming Iran or hitting civilian areas.
The impact on Syria may be minimal. It’s a bit like catching a criminal in the act but deciding not to prosecute; instead we’ll destroy a few of their tools and hope they don’t do it again; it’s an inconvenience but nothing more.
Russian commentators have deplored the attack. President Vladimir Putin condemned the strikes “in the most serious way”, but privately he may feel that he has got off lightly as the US has said this is a one-time strike.
The risks of escalation remain, but right now that appears to be in no-one’s interests. There is no public appetite for Britain to become entangled in the Syrian civil war and the impact on the region appears negligible. Trump himself will be content to count this as a victory and move on. His “Mission Accomplished” tweet appears to he indicate he already has.
This attack looks like more of a diplomatic gesture rather than a genuine military response.