Limited bombardment reflects little appetite for engagement

Pentagon appears to have persuaded White House of need for narrowly targeted attack

Lasting just 70 minutes and involving 103 missiles, Saturday's bombardment of Syria was more modest than the rhetoric from Washington, Paris and London portended and is unlikely to serve as a significant deterrent to Bashar al-Assad.

If Russian claims that Syrian air defences shot down 71 of the missiles are true, the impact of the operation, which US defence secretary James Mattis described as "a one-time shot", will be slighter still.

The limited nature of the bombardment reflects the political reality that there is little appetite in the US, France or Britain for any significant military engagement in Syria. And the Pentagon appears to have persuaded the White House that the attack had to be narrowly targeted to avoid striking Russian and Iranian military personnel in the country.

Theresa May stressed on Saturday that the air strikes were not about regime change or about interfering in a civil war. Instead, they were designed to degrade the Syrian regime's ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons and to send a message that the international community will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.



A YouGov poll conducted in the days before the attack found just one in five in Britain supported the operation, with twice as many saying they opposed it. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the action had no legal basis and May will face tough questions from MPs when she makes a statement in the House of Commons on Monday.

Despite the political difficulties, May was always likely to offer British support for the operation, not least as a signal of Britain’s determination to play a global role after Brexit.

The airstrikes followed an internal dispute within the Trump administration, with the president and his national security adviser John Bolton favouring a more expansive operation while the Pentagon urged caution. French president Emmanuel Macron was the most resolute of the three leaders in his commitment to striking Syria but in the hours before the attack, he called for dialogue with Russia to be maintained and stepped up in an effort to bring peace and stability to Syria.

If Saturday’s operation had the secondary purpose of increasing pressure on Moscow to persuade Assad to reach a peace deal with Syrian opposition forces, there is little immediate sign that it will do so.

After seven years of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, Assad is closer to victory than ever before. And if he was responsible for the chemical attack in Douma, his war crime achieved its military objective – on Saturday morning, his forces entered the rebel holdout, predicting that it would be secured within 24 hours.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times