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Politics Trump's Syria strike was a loud public spanking of the Assad government — but not much else

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The weekend Syria strikes, a public spanking rather than a decisive military campaign, was a "mission accomplished" because they made it loud.

The Damascus sky lights up missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital early Saturday, April 14, 2018. play

The Damascus sky lights up missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital early Saturday, April 14, 2018.

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • President Donald Trump rallied US allies for a trilateral strike on sites connected to chemical weapons in Syria, and it looks to have achieved its goal.
  • Syria has deep, horrific problems beyond chemical weapons, however, and the Pentagon acknowledges it didn't even take out all the country's chemical weapons.
  • Instead, the strike was a public spanking for President Bashar Assad's government, one that won't change anything on the battlefield or make life better for most Syrians.
  • Viewed narrowly as an attempt by the allies to punish Syria's government, it was a roaring success.

President Donald Trump this weekend pulled off a large-scale attack on sites thought to contribute to Syria's chemical weapons program — but even the Pentagon acknowledges the attack's limitations.

The Pentagon says the strikes, made by the US, France, and the UK, took out the "heart" of Syria's chemical weapons program. But Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the UN has linked to dozens of gas attacks, still maintains "residual" capabilities of creating and using chemical weapons, the Pentagon said.

Assad still has his jets and helicopters. The air wing in Assad's army that the US suspects of having carried out a chemical attack earlier this month on the town of Douma went unpunished. The US-led strike did not target any personnel suspected of carrying out illegal orders to drop gas bombs on civilians.

"It is very important to stress it is not an attempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have a regime change," Boris Johnson, the UK's foreign secretary, said. "I'm afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we've had enough of the use of chemical weapons."

"The American strikes did not change anything for Syrians," Osama Shoghari, an anti-government activist from Douma, told The New York Times. "They did not change anything on the ground."

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strike "precise and proportionate," but while it may have involved precise, smart, new weapons, it's unclear what Mattis thinks the strike proportional to.

What did the strikes change on the ground?

One of the US's targets before and after the strike. play

One of the US's targets before and after the strike.

(Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe.)

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed during the country's seven-year civil war, which kicked off when Assad violently responded to pro-democracy rallies in 2011.

Millions in Syria have been displaced by the conflict; many have been tortured and abducted. Large swaths of the country fell under jihadist rule. A generation of Syrian children are growing up knowing only war.

The strikes on Friday night addressed none of that. The 105 weapons used against three facilities across Syria targeted only chemical weapons production in Syria, and they didn't even remove all of those weapons or capabilities.

Instead, the strikes made a big show of punishing the Assad government over the attack on Douma that the US and local aid groups said involved chemical weapons, and it did so on a shaky legal premise.

Chemical warfare may continue in Syria. Widespread fighting, casualties, and abuses of power in the deeply unstable country will continue with near certainty. A hundred missiles, or even a thousand, couldn't hope to reverse the deep problems faced by Syrians every day, or to punish Assad and his inner circle as much as they have punished their own people, but Trump never actually tried to.

Performative allyship in cruise-missile form

A pro-Assad poster in Idlib, Syria. play

A pro-Assad poster in Idlib, Syria.

(Ammar Abdallah/Reuters)

Assad, a leader whom Trump calls an animal who gasses his own people, remains in power. Chemical weapons remain in Syria. The world is no closer to finding peace there.

But Assad has been publicly spanked by the US, the UK, and France. Three nations told Syria, and its Russian backers, they meant business after years of turning a blind eye to reports of horrors in the country.

The Syria strike, viewed as a public spanking rather than a decisive military campaign, was a "mission accomplished" not because it changed anything, but because they made it loud.