As expected, the air strikes on Syrian regime targets were limited in magnitude and political objective. They did not go beyond targeting Syria's chemical weapons' infrastructure, and were not part of any strategy for the overall situation in the country. Nor did they have any direct relation to the Syrian people and their sacrifices, or President Bashar Al-Assad, who is said to have left the presidential palace to hide in the Russian base at Hameimim.
The words Syria and Syrian are repeated a lot, but, after seven years of civil war, the country has become a battlefield for everyone. All the actions, steps and strikes taking place there are against targets that have nothing to do with Syria or the interests of the Syrian people. Even the latest air strikes were actually aimed at Russia and its policies within and beyond Syria. That's how Assad and his Iranian allies wanted it to be. Syrians pay for that with their lives, rights, stability and blood. Assad is no more than a chess piece or a bargaining chip in the hands of the Russians and Iranians. The US President calls him an animal, a tyrant and a war criminal, and the British Prime Minister echoes this, but neither targets him directly. It is as if the West is also dealing with him as a bargaining chip with the Russians. There are some who try to protect him from getting killed or ousted, but no one knows how his end will come about.
In such a surreal scenario, it is clear that the aim of the US, French and British air strikes was not to limit the military capabilities of the Assad regime. These are no longer of any value in the balance that controls Syria; in any case, they had failed to protect the President and his regime before the Russians intervened. Moreover, the aim of the strikes was not to protect the Syrian people from the regime and its allies. Had this been the main goal, or even one of a number of goals, the three Western leaders would have announced a clear political position to stop the bloodshed in Syria and the need for foreign militias to leave as a condition for any political solution to the crisis. Had the best interest of the Syrian people been one of the goals, the three would have demanded the departure of Assad as another condition for a political solution. However, they committed themselves before and after the attacks to silence about the shape and conditions of the political solution and the fate of Assad.
The aim of the air strikes was confined to the framework of the Russia-West and, predominantly, Russia-US rapprochement. Each party is trying to avoid a slide into direct confrontation. This is what President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May said in their respective post-attack speeches to their people. May was direct when she said that the goal was not regime change in Syria, but what about changing the head of the regime? She said nothing about that, leaving the door open. What about the killing of Syrians by Assad's forces with non-chemical weapons for more than seven years? She also said nothing about that. What about the presence of foreign militias in Syria? A third silence, which was no less deafening.
If the goal is not to protect the Syrian people from their President or his foreign allies; not to stop mass murder with non-chemical weapons, and not to declare a clear position on foreign militias, then what was the objective of the air strikes? Listen to what Donald Trump said: "In 2013, President Putin and his government promised that they would ensure the destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons. Therefore, Assad's recent chemical attacks, which we responded to this evening, are a direct result of Russia's failure to fulfil its promise."
In other words, last week's air strikes were a direct message to Vladimir Putin. According to Trump, the Russian leader deceived the Americans over the agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, which was reached with Trumps' predecessor, President Barack Obama. Not only did Putin do this, it is alleged, but he also sent poisonous gas to Britain to kill a Russian double agent.
If true, this means that the Russian President is openly challenging the West not only in Syria (and Ukraine, by the way) but also at the heart of Western Europe. This in itself called for a collective response, synchronised by the United States, Britain and France, to send a message to Moscow. If this was not the case, the eventual scale of the strikes and their limited goals did not require the participation of three nuclear powers.
The US, France and Britain made sure that they did not hit any locations housing or near any Russians, so as to avoid any reaction from Russia. Moscow has responded positively to this, with a reaction that was no more than verbal condemnation of what it called Western aggression. The Syrian regime raised its stature in a lame way, describing the strikes as "tripartite aggression", in a miserable attempt to draw a parallel with what happened to Egypt in 1956. The tragedy of this regime and its President is not only with history but with Syria and, above all else, with itself. Before the latest air strikes, there were also occasional Israeli attacks on Syrian and Iranian sites.
The Syrian skies are now open according to the rules set by Russia and not by the regime. This regime is primarily responsible for Syria's situation, and the country has once again become a battlefield for regional and international conflicts that neither Syria nor the regime can handle. Instead of employing its strategic location for the people of Syria, Assad has made his country a platform for foreign forces, not least Russian, Iranian and sectarian militias. He still hasn't realised that he has thus wasted Syria's strategic importance and along the way has squandered the legacy that his father had entrusted to him.
So much has been written about the role of the late Hafez Assad in saving Syria from becoming a battlefield for others, and so much is yet to be written about the disastrous role of Bashar in turning the country into what it has become. Surprisingly, however, the Syrian President is still driven by the idea that he has won against the revolution. As he puts it, he does not need to use chemical weapons, which suggests that he did use them in 2013 when he was on the verge of falling.
In other words, the lives and right to life of people are not the criteria to deter him from using such weapons, but his ambitions, interests and foreign alliances are. It is, therefore, no surprise that such a President and regime have led Syria to become like this, getting bombed with hundreds of missiles in one night so as to get one message across; to Putin, though, not to Assad.
Translated from Alhayat, 15 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.