“Big noise on the stairs, but nobody comes into the room,” runs an old Chinese saying. This is an apt description of the very limited airstrikes on Syria launched by the US, Britain and France overnight, which came after apocalyptic tweets from President Trump and threats of military retaliation by Russian diplomats.
In the event, the fears of a “Russian-American clash” and runaway confrontation leading to a “third world war” have turned out to be overblown. They did not look quite so exaggerated earlier in the week when Trump tweeted about US missiles: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’.”
The Russians hinted that their retaliation might include American targets.
Of all the options available, the US-led coalition chose the one involving minimal action and geared not to provoke Russia or Iran. This was a one-off attack on three suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, one in Damascus and two west of Homs. It was more of a gesture of disapproval than an attempt to damage President Bashar al-Assad’s military machine. Hours after the missiles had struck, his supporters were understandably demonstrating their defiance in the centre of Damascus.
Trump, reportedly under pressure from his military chiefs, may have chosen the most cautious option, but in fact there were no good options. Assad has all but won the civil war. Even if it was possible to weaken him, this might present opportunities to Isis and al-Qaeda, which are battered but not entirely out of business.
The attacks may or may not deter Assad from using poison gas in the future, but they will not change the balance of power against him. Chemical weapons are only a small part of his arsenal and have played only a minor military role in the war.
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