In the early hours of Saturday, American, British and French missiles struck three regime sites in Syria. The military response promised by US President Donald Trump in response to the chlorine gas attack on Douma by the Syrian regime took a week to materialise. The operation was, in the words of US Defence Secretary James Mattis, a "one-time shot"; it was over within an hour of its launch. The targets selected for destruction were a military command post, a chemical weapons storage facility in Homs and a research centre in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Mr Trump, who wants to be seen as proactive on Syria, said the attack was intended to act as a "strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons". His French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, who envisages a role for himself as an international statesman and problem-solver, said it would send the message that the world would not tolerate the "normalisation of the use of chemical weapons". Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, having suffered a chemical poisoning on her doorstep, echoed Mr Macron's message.
But will these strikes really make a difference? Last year Mr Trump ordered limited strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. They, too, were meant to deter Mr Al Assad from deploying his chemical arsenal. But the fact that he marked the one-year anniversary of the attack by blitzing Douma with chlorine gas demonstrates the futility of such limited action. The military campaign by the coalition of the willing is driven by the commensurate desires of its three instigators being aligned, rather than being motivated by a cohesive, strategic plan to change the trajectory of the Syrian conflict by applying sustained force and compelling Mr Al Assad and his backers to negotiate. It is, simply put, a demonstrative statement; there is no strategy to speak of.
The potential for escalation – especially in a conflict with Russia, which has warned of grave consequences – is part of the reason for the West's reticence. Yet it is this very prospect of escalation that calls for a comprehensive strategy to end the war in Syria: the likelihood of a major clash between great powers will be high as long as Syria remains a conflict zone. Turkey has said the strikes were "appropriate" while Iran has made preposterous claims about "criminal" violations of international law while aiding and abetting Mr Al Assad's murderous rampages. All parties to the conflict are governed by their own self-interest but tokenistic gestures will do nothing to relieve the suffering of the Syrians. At the very most, they will reaffirm the message that chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Whether or not that message will be heeded in the absence of a military strategy that can actually go beyond taking out select military targets is a different matter. Mr Al Assad, who headed to work as normal yesterday and, bolstered by his Russian and Iranian allies, will plough on undaunted towards his target of crushing Syrian opposition once and for all.