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One-off Strikes Do Little to Clarify US Syria Strategy
By David Gardner

The American, British and French air and missile strikes, targeting what the Pentagon said were Syrian chemical arms facilities before dawn on Saturday, might just give Bashar al-Assad's regime pause before using these weapons again. Or they may amount to little more than shots in the dark. Certainly they do nothing to clarify the confused Syria strategy of the US and its allies or whether, indeed, they have one.

The raids, in Damascus and near Homs, were in response to a regime attack last Saturday on Douma, a rebel enclave east of the capital, that local medical sources said a helicopter dropped barrel bombs of poison gas that killed at least 70 civilians including children. Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, said the strikes were about twice as potent as last year's American salvo of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base, in reprisal for a sarin nerve gas attack on rebel territory in north-west Syria that killed more than 80 people.

Though described as a one-off action to deter President Assad and his allies, Donald Trump, the US president warned it could be repeated. "We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," he said.

The strikes were telegraphed well in advance by a Trumpian Twitter storm, giving Russia and Iran, Mr Assad's military patrons, ample time to disentangle their forces from potential targets, and the regime time to evacuate bases and shelter its depleted air force. This minimised the incalculable risk of clashes between the US and Russia, but the targeting may have been wider than the Pentagon revealed, and intended to send a more menacing signal to the Assads and their backers.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor that probably has most accurately documented events on the ground through Syria's long civil war, the strikes hit not just chemical targets but bases in and around Damascus of the regime's two elite units -- the Republican Guard and Fourth Armoured Division -- commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president's younger brother.

Yet none of this answers the question of what happens next, to which Mr Trump in recent weeks has provided a wide spectrum of contradictory answers.

Until last week, his administration was signalling it would keep and strengthen US forces in Syria, both to finish the fight against Isis and to deter further inroads by Iran and is proxies. As part of this, Washington was planning a 30,000-strong "border force", built around the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia it has used as ground forces against Isis. That provoked Turkey, a Nato ally at war with Kurdish insurgents within its borders, to invade north-west Syria -- egged on by Russia, which controls western Syria's airspace.

Then, just before the Douma chemical attack, President Trump said the US would be leaving Syria "very soon", and let others deal with it. This would not only hang the Syrian Kurds out to dry. It would set off a stampede for the quarter of Syria the YPG holds. Turkey and its jihadi proxies; Iran and its allied militias from both sides of the Syria-Iraq border; an Isis that is in retreat but seeking a comeback from pockets in the Euphrates valley; and, of course, the Moscow-sponsored Assad regime set on recapturing the whole country -- the list goes on.

Israel, after more than 100 air strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, says it will keep attacking to prevent Tehran and proxies such as Lebanon's Hizbollah putting down roots there.

Were the US to pull out the 2,000 or so American troops in north eastern Syria where they have been fighting Isis, that may also expose the close to 10,000 it has in Iraq, where the Iran-backed Shia militia coalition, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, is contesting next month's election on a pledge to force America out. The PMF, which can field up to 100,000 fighters under commanders with decades of experience of fighting dirty, last September took big swaths of northern Iraq from Iraqi Kurds who -- like their Syrian brethren -- had previously seized it from Isis with American help.

The US pulling out of Syria after these one-off strikes will pull threads that could further unravel a ragged and ruined country, bordering five western-aligned nations -- Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel -- leaving Russia and Iran to shape whatever future Syria has.

Late as it is in this pitiless war, the new offensive against Syria's chemical arsenal was badly needed. Now, as David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary who heads the International Rescue Committee has said: "The need for a diplomatic offensive is more imperative than ever".


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