Mission Accomplished? Which Mission?
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Mission Accomplished? Which Mission?

The Situation in Syria Isn’t Going to Be Fixed by a Missile Strike

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 militaries are effective once they know where they are aiming their weapons. Based on Pentagon briefings, it seems 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, and Iranians, as well as Syrians. And, the U.S. wins credibility when it acts in the name of morality and in tandem with allies.
  • Nothing is finished here. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a protector of Syria, called the missile strikes an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” violating the U.N. charter. Syria said there would be more conflict. Iran issued a standard broadside. Among other things, the U.N. Security Council showed with divided voices 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 since more are stored elsewhere, and that further actions threaten a broadened conflict in the region.
  • Maybe the most remarkable aspect of the weekend strikes was that 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. 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.

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 U.S. and allies to interfere. But still there is death by barrel bombs; starvation; and street warfare that jeopardizes civilians, hospitals, food and daily life. Nothing is changed.

Nor did U.S. declarations of human caring because of use of chemical weapons prompt help for the massive numbers of refugees created by the six years of war in Syria. Trump’s U.S. 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 the elimination of ISIS as a singular agency of terrorism, remains intractable despite reams of information showing Syrian insurgents represent a wide variety of causes that will continue to flourish and re-grow in organized and unorganized ways once the U.S. does withdraw.

As noted previously, the most recent meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders to carve up a post-war Syria left the U.S. 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 are targets of a Turkey that fears its own internal uprising.

We have a situation in Syria that feels overwhelming considering that complex, comprehensive and sensible thinking by the U.S. is lacking. Look at 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 secretary of state nominee swimming upward toward Senate confirmation; and looming dates with simultaneous nuclear weapons showdowns in North Korea and Iran.

“America First” doesn’t provide a complex grid for answers.

Lets hope that perhaps Trump has learned something from actually listening to people who know what they are talking about.

April 15, 2018