(Withholding) Judgment of the U.S. Missile Strike on Syria


Apr 19, 2017

The guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017

The guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017

Photo by MC3 Robert S. Price/U.S. Navy

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 18, 2017.

This analyst, like many Syria watchers, is conflicted by the decision by the Trump administration to launch a missile strike on Syrian military targets in response to the regime's chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. On the one hand, any feeling person would welcome the Syrian regime being constrained from future chemical weapons use against its own people. On the other hand, it is unclear the missile strike will achieve that outcome and could invite unintended consequences that risk U.S. reputation, blood, and treasure.

The crux of the problem for an analyst is that the wisdom of the strike is dependent upon future outcomes that are presently unknowable. So rather than pass judgment, analysts would do better to establish the benchmarks by which they will assess this foreign policy decision once the facts are in. The remainder of this article does just that, inviting the reader to consider what she should be watching for.

Identifying Goals and Benchmarks

Goal #1, Deter Future Chemical Weapons Attacks: The stated goal of the missile attack was to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's future use of chemical weapons. As noted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Assad was effectively “normalizing the use of chemical weapons,” which could open the door to this tactic being “adopted by others.” Therefore, “it's important that…the international community make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms.”

If we take the secretary's explanation at face value, then the metric for judging the success of the operation is fairly straightforward. Should Assad refrain from further use of chemical weapons—even if he continues to use other abhorrent tactics including barrel bombs and indiscriminate artillery attacks—then the action was successful in that the change in behavior sought would be realized.

Critics of that logic will say that Assad has other means to kill his people, and they would be right. The regime also has conventional munitions at its disposal including those it has jerry-rigged for added lethality. However, to argue that deterring chemical weapons attacks won't defang Assad misses the point. Deterring states from using chemical weapons, and particularly chemicals as deadly as sarin, which was the suspected agent in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, is a worthy policy goal even if it stops short of ending other forms of violence against civilians....

The remainder of this commentary is available on nationalinterest.org.

Jeffrey Martini is a senior Middle East analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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