Missiles from three countries — the United States, France and Britain — hit Syrian chemical weapons facilities last weekend in response to the alleged use by Damascus of chemical weapons against its own citizens. While the attacks are punishment for appalling actions by a ghastly regime, they are not a strategy. All governments concerned about restoring the norm that prohibits the use of such weapons must act together to punish transgressors, and they must make this a priority.
On April 7, the town of Douma, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, was attacked with chemical weapons. The targets were civilians, some of whom may have supported rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad, but the victims included many women and children. Outraged by the attack, the U.S., France and Britain launched 105 missiles from planes and ships at three facilities — command centers and production and research facilities — that have been described as “fundamental components of the regime’s chemical warfare infrastructure.”
A U.S. Defense Department spokesperson said the strikes “set the Syrian chemical weapons program back for years,” but they conceded that the regime retains a residual capacity. More important is whether the attacks damaged the Assad government’s will to use such weapons. It is unlikely.
The Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons before. It allegedly deployed poison gas against its citizens in March 2013 and again in August that year. While then-U.S. President Barack Obama said those acts crossed a red line, he refrained from attacking Syria and instead negotiated a deal that supposedly removed all Damascus’ chemical weapons. Apparently, that deal was not honored, as a year ago, the Syrian government reportedly used sarin gas to attack civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which resulted in about 70 deaths. That inhumanity prompted a U.S. retaliatory strike of 59 cruise missiles but it did not deter the Syrian regime from future acts of barbarism.
Retaliation may be emotionally gratifying but it is not a strategy. The key objective is to restore the norm that chemical weapons use is beyond the pale and that such actions will incur severe consequences. There is no indication that the attacks last weekend are part of a larger effort to achieve that goal. Certainly, the attack last year did not stop the Assad’s regime from using those weapons again.
There are several reasons why deterrence has failed. One factor is the U.S. determination to exit the Syrian conflict. Four days before the April 7 attack, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he intended to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria. Most analysts believe that the subsequent attack was a signal from Damascus that it felt no pressure and acted to show rebels and their supporters that they could expect no outside help. After last weekend’s attack, Assad’s office tweeted that “The honorable cannot be humiliated,” and government supporters celebrated the limited scale of the retaliation. Their confidence has been boosted by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s comments that “This was not about interfering in a civil war, and it was not about regime change,” a sentiment that was echoed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
A second factor is the support that Russia has given Syria. Moscow has provided military assistance and diplomatic support, vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Damascus. Until Russia feels pain for backing Assad, atrocities could continue. The U.S. is apparently ready to impose new sanctions on Russian individuals and companies that helped Syria make and deploy chemical weapons, but that is unlikely to be enough.
Sanctions can only work if they are implemented by a coalition of nations. In this, Japan’s cooperation is essential, yet its actions are restrained. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the gas attacks, saying “The use of chemical weapons is extremely inhumane and Japan can never accept it. The Japanese government supports the resolve of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom not to allow their proliferation and use.”
That is the message that Japan should reinforce, especially given North Korea’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We want Pyongyang to know that any use of such weapons will incur maximum punishment.
Yet Japan’s position is not without nuance. Some hedging is understandable. The U.S., Britain and France acted in consultation but on their own. It would be far better to have U.N. authorization for such strikes, although the threat of a Russian veto makes such action unlikely. Ironically, the prospect of unilateral action by the U.S. and its allies could reinforce Pyongyang’s desire to hold on to its most powerful weapons.
Finally, there is speculation that the Abe administration does not wish to complicate relations with Moscow because it has other priorities in its relationship with Russia. That makes sense only on the most abstract level. Japan cannot do business with a regime that not only turns a blind eye to, but actually enables, such horrific acts. It should join the West in demanding genuine sanctions against Syria and help develop a strategy that goes beyond punishment.