‘Mission accomplished’: the West strikes Syria

Big hitters: The Tomahawk missiles fired on Saturday cost an estimated £1 million each. © Getty

Were we right to hit Syria with missiles? The US, the UK and France claim to have destroyed the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. What comes next is far from clear…

In the early hours of Saturday, residents of Damascus were jolted awake. A volley of missiles lit the sky above the Syrian capital. Moments later, three facilities linked to Syria’s manufacture of chemical weapons were hit.

The strikes were launched by the US, the UK and France. They were ordered in retaliation for a suspected gas attack on the city of Douma a week previously, which left over 70 dead. Evidence points to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who has repeatedly used chemical weapons in his country’s civil war, as the culprit.

“Mission accomplished!” tweeted US President Donald Trump in the wake of the strikes. The US government declared that “the heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons programme had been destroyed. If Assad managed to carry out another chemical attack, the Western allies warned that they would strike again.

Even as warfare goes, chemical weapons are seen as uniquely awful. They are indiscriminate, and their effects are horrific: civilians in Douma were seen writhing in pain and foaming at the mouth. That is why these weapons are banned under international law.

Yet some regimes continue to use them. After Assad killed hundreds with sarin in 2013, the West considered military intervention in Syria. It held back when Assad, backed by his ally Russia, promised to destroy his chemical stockpile.

That has apparently not happened: chemical attacks on areas held by Assad’s rebel enemies continue. The United Nations (UN) has counted 27 altogether. Syria and Russia deny all this; the latter has repeatedly blocked attempts to launch a UN-backed investigation into the issue.

Since Trump came to power, the US has changed tack. After a chemical attack last April, it bombed a Syrian airbase. Saturday’s strikes were more powerful. Yet they were carefully aimed away from civilians, and Syrian and Russian troops. As the Western allies admitted, they were not seeking to change the direction of Syria’s war.

Were they right to strike?

While the iron is hot

Of course, say some. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is pure evil, not to mention illegal. We have let him get away with it for too long. Saturday’s strikes sent a clear message, without doing any wider damage. Powerful, precise and fair, they were a lesson in military intervention done well. We should be proud of standing up for justice.

But now what? ask others. Last year’s strike did not stop Assad from using chemicals again — these may not either. If he does it again, we have to either order another useless strike or do something more drastic, risking war with Russia. And if he doesn’t, he will keep massacring Syrians by other means anyway. Saturday’s attack looked impressive, but it was not thought through.

You Decide

  1. Was the strike a good idea?
  2. Does it make sense that chemical weapons are illegal, but most other weapons are not?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to someone your age in Douma, asking them how they feel about the situation.
  2. In teams, pick a type of chemical weapon, and prepare a three-minute presentation on its effects and past uses. The Day’s briefing in Become An Expert may come in useful.

Some People Say...

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Western allies fired 105 missiles at 4am local time. Unlike last year, they sent them from jets as well as ships and submarines, exposing themselves to Syria’s anti-aircraft weaponry. They said that they hit a research centre in Damascus, plus storage facilities near Homs. According to the Syrian regime, three people were injured.
What do we not know?
How much of Assad’s chemical weapons programme is left. There are also questions around the legality of the strikes. Neither Trump nor UK Prime Minister Theresa May consulted their legislatures or the UN. As they were not acting with official permission, nor in self-defence, some — including Russia — argue that they were not allowed to attack Syria. See The New York Times’s article in Become An Expert.

Word Watch

Gas attack
Going by the victims’ symptoms, US officials believe that sarin and chlorine gas were used. Members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently in Syria to determine exactly what happened.
Douma
The city was one of the increasingly rare territories held by rebels. After the attack, they fled, leaving Douma to the Syrian regime.
Civil war
Syria’s many-sided war has been raging since 2011. Around 500,000 have died, and over 10 million have fled their homes.
Indiscriminate
This means that chemical weapons are not precisely targeted; they can affect anyone nearby, whether fighter or civilian.
International law
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, signatory states are not allowed to have chemical weapons (or the means to produce them). Syria signed up in 2013.
27
According to Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, some estimates go as high as 200.
Risking war
After the strikes, Russia’s ambassador to the US tweeted: “Such actions will not be left without consequences.” For now, though, Russia seems unlikely to respond with force.