Q1: What happened?
Last night, and much to chagrin of people who thought Trump would not escalate matters in Syria, the US military launched 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria, allegedly attempting to destroy a government airbase. They warned the Russian government before-hand, who will have passed on that warning to the Syrians, meaning the area was probably on alert, with any important equipment or personnel removed. The Pentagon have also stated that, at this time, there are no plans for any other strikes or any campaign in Syria.
Q2: Supposing the attack definitely happened as most are reporting – and that is a dangerous assumption to make these days – what have the results been?
At last count the number of Syrian casualties stood at 6 dead servicemen, and 9 dead civilians (including four children) and several more wounded, together with the loss of six aircraft. The airbase they attacked looks far from destroyed in footage from Russia 24 (see here). And chemical weapons? Well, they didn’t destroy any…and say they weren’t trying to do so (see our brief story on that contradiction here). So in terms of military targets, this strike has achieved very little.
The attack was pitifully inefficient, of the 50-70 missiles launched, only 23 struck anywhere near their targets. The other 30+ are currently unaccounted for. Tomahawk missiles cost between $500,000 and $1,500,000 dollar each, which means the US just spent between 25 and 105 MILLION dollars on dinging up a couple of aircraft hangars and murdering less than 20 people.
Q3: …then why do it?
There must be some political wins in this situation to justify the price tag, because the damage done to the “enemy” is practically zero. Indeed, when you take into account that the Pentagon informed the Russians, who will have informed the Syrians, and the reports of Syria evacuating personnel before the attack…the entire event appears somewhat theatrical. Meaning it was an entirely political act, possibly intended more for a domestic audience than anything else.
It had no bearing on the civil war at all, the airstrikes on rebel positions weren’t even halted for a day.
Q4: Was it legal?
Whether it was the product of an impotent emotional tantrum, or a cynical public relations gambit, there is no question the attack was completely illegal under international law. But the American press have never cared much about that. Given that America’s reputation was already in tatters, among those who consider such trifles important, this won’t do much damage. They will take a hit on that front, it probably won’t matter in the long-run.
The list of unpunished American international crimes is hugely long. This small addition barely qualifies.
Q5: cui bono?
Always the most important question.
Trump can definitely get some short-term political gains domestically here. Having “defied” the Russians and “stood-up to” Assad, Trump can now enjoy a period of respite from the “Trump is in Russia’s pocket” talk. Plus, the wider establishment – so fond of calling for “action on Syria” – will be forced to either agree with (and consequently legitimize) the administration, or criticise an attack on Syria and dial back their own calls for war.
What Trump gains in terms of favour within the deep-state and political establishment he will lose in terms of approval with his voting base. One of the biggest issues contributing to Trumps electoral victory was his non-interventionist stance on the ME. This may only be a superficial event, but the list of people approving of and/or celebrating it is enough to alienate a lot of Trump voters for good. But he doesn’t have to worry about that for the next four years.
One definite winner in all of this is Turkey, so long illegally picking at land along the Syrian border. They now have a precedent for a NATO ally taking unilateral action against the Syrian government on very flimsy evidence. They will take that and run with it. Israel, similarly, will see this as permission to be even more active in Syria. Both are key suppliers to the rebels, both are carving out chunks of Syria for themselves.
A danger does still lurk, of course. Whether Trump took this action to make a point, or was talked into it by generals and the like, the first official American attack on Syria has now taken place. Mission creep, intended from the outset or no, is an important thing to keep an eye on at this point.