Trump can claim that he acted decisively while Putin and Assad carry on with their brutal war
The images seemed convincing. The scientific research facility in Barzeh, north of Damascus was once a modern, sprawling complex – and the alleged home of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons programme.
As dawn broke on Saturday morning the facility was revealed as a smouldering ruin. Concrete office blocks had been transformed into squashed grey rectangles. The site was a wreck. Syrian soldiers in blue uniforms picked their way slowly over the rubble, hosing down a few lingering flames.
Over at the Him Shinshar bunker, west of the city of Homs, it was the same story. Satellite images had shown its underground chemical weapons storage facility to be a green-topped hump. By Saturday this no longer existed. From the air there was a white, powder-like crater surrounded by red-brown fields.
On the face of it, the attacks in the early hours of Saturday by the US, France and Britain counted as a resounding military success. More than a hundred missiles had hit their targets. Four Tornado GR4s took off from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. They unleashed eight Storm Shadow missiles and safely returned.
Videos posted by the US Department of Defense showcased its military’s multiple strike capabilities. Out in the Mediterranean, a Tomahawk cruise missile was launched from the submarine USS John Warner. From the USS Monterey, another missile lit up an ink-black sky. There were shots, too, of US air force crews preparing to deploy in a B-1 bomber. If you looked closely you could see its name: “Black Widow”.
Afterwards the man behind this night-time show of force, Donald Trump, struck a triumphal note. In a tweet, he congratulated France and the UK on a “perfectly executed strike” and thanked them for their “wisdom and the power of their fine military”.
Trump concluded: “Could not have wished for a better result. Mission accomplished!” The US president was seemingly oblivious to the fact that his predecessor George W Bush had made the same bold and exaggerated claim in 2003 after his invasion of Iraq. The disaster there continues.
Trump later dismissed criticism by his favourite enemy – the “fake news media” – and said he had knowingly brought the term mission accomplished back. “Use often!” he tweeted.
The decision to attack Syria followed the regime’s use of poison gas on 7 April against the then rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, now reoccupied by regime forces. Viewed in narrow terms, the strikes worked. No civilians were killed. Crucially, Russian military casualties on the ground were avoided.
Trump had telegraphed his intention to hit Syria well in advance, on Wednesday. This allowed the regime – and its Iranian and Russian backers – time to move men and munitions out of the target zones. Assad’s ability to gas his own people remains. Most civilians have been killed by conventional weapons.
By Sunday, the spectre of direct conflict with Moscow was receding. The Kremlin had threatened an apocalyptic response to a US-led attack on Syria, with Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon promising a counterstrike against the “sources that launched the missiles”. This did not happen.
Yet for Theresa May the decision to attack Assad brought a host of political problems. First, it was clear that the timing of the raid was determined by the White House, with the UK meekly following. Second, there were grave doubts that the strikes would make any difference to Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year, with half a million dead.
Third, and most important, May failed to consult parliament. Her Brexit government has vowed to restore sovereignty. But not this time, over the fundamental question of war. What began as a limited 45-minute raid is likely to rage for weeks inside the House of Commons, when dissatisfied MPs return on Monday from their Easter recess.
On Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn questioned the concept of humanitarian intervention. He told the BBC1’s the Andrew Marr Show he was in favour of a “war powers act” that would force future UK governments to put any proposed military strike to parliament.May most probably would have won had she held a vote last week. She didn’t.
Trump’s critics say the strike had all the authenticity of a phoney wrestling bout of the kind the president used to enjoy in his days as a celebrity TV tycoon. David Clark, a former special adviser to the late foreign secretary Robin Cook, was scathing, calling it: “a fake confrontation in which all the moves are scripted in advance.”
The attack, critics said, was an expensive firework display, executed without any long-term plan for peace in Syria or coherent geopolitical strategy. Syrian exiles opposed to the regime decried its modest ambition. They predicted that Assad would continue to murder his opponents exactly as before.
The cynical view is that the timing of Trump’s operation was reminiscent of Wag the Dog, the Hollywood comedy about a president who goes to war to distract from a sex scandal.
Syria has, temporarily, pushed the former FBI chief James Comey and his unflattering book about the “mafia” president from the top of the news schedules. The White House can enjoy a moment of respite from the president’s many woes, and from the investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
International reaction to the raids has been predictable. Vladimir Putin – whose forces have bombed Syria every day for the past two years, targeting hospitals – complained of “act of aggression”.
Footage screened on Syrian state TV showed Assad – or someone who looked like him – going to work as usual on Saturday, nonchalant, unbowed and holding a briefcase. Assad said his country would stand its ground “against an agenda imposed by the west”.
Certainly, residents in Damascus appeared unbothered by the missiles and flares which had lit up their city over the weekend. As one resident, Khalil Abu Hamza, who lives near the scene of one attack, said: “I slept through it.” He added: “This was a pantomime, anyway.”
Abu Haidar, 62, an Assad supporter, said: “When we heard the explosions, we knew it was the Americans. People didn’t go down to shelters, didn’t scream, didn’t hide. We were out on the roofs of our buildings. The Damascus sky was lit up. But we knew this was all a front.”
From a position of near-conflict both the US and Russia have now saved face. Trump can claim that – unlike the “dithering” Obama – he had acted decisively. The Kremlin can point out that the bombing was minimal, with no casualties. Immediate follow-up action seems unlikely after the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said: “Right now this is a one-time shot.”
The prospect of a summit between Trump and Putin looms. With the football World Cup in Russia on the horizon, Moscow will be keen to dial down the possibility of confrontation. Meanwhile, Syria’s agony goes on.