There's an unwritten justification for all jocular behavior among men. We do it because we can. The guy at the gym who walks around flexing his pecs needs no other excuse. Pec flexing and moral preening both accomplish very little other than to make those within view nod impressively at the display of power. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the United States accomplished last night, for all the "mission accomplished" talk of targets and spectacular explosions.
See, none of this is new, or even unexpected. The political and power situation in Syria has been relatively unchanged in the last five years, regardless of the military situations with ISIS, Syrian rebels, Russia and Assad's government forces.
Five years ago, I attended an informal, unclassified briefing given by an Israeli intelligence officer. He focused on Syria. His points were very clear and remain true today:
- Bashar al-Assad will not ever step down. The only way to remove him from power is to kill him.
- Killing Assad may be worse than leaving him (despite the fact he's a monster) given the power vacuum and slaughter that would follow.
- Assad will use every asset at his disposal to remain in power.
- Russia will always stand by Assad, because he offers them a land route to southwest Asia (a strategically important thing to Moscow), and a Mediterranean port.
- The current situation in Syria benefits Russia and Iran.
- As long as the U.S. is occupied in Afghanistan, we can't commit the assets required to remove Assad or his capability to remain in power.
- For Israel's part, they will make no pre-emptive, proactive moves, except to respond to transfer of chemical or other advanced weapons to terrorists, namely Hizbollah.
None of this has changed. Strikes against Assad's command and control network, his known stores of chemical weapons, and other government facilities don't punish him any worse than bouncing the rubble at some of his properties in Damascus or destroying Aleppo (which he himself ordered). Be assured, the Russians likely know where some of the chemical stores are. Also be assured that Assad's military knows how to calculate the yield of a cruise missile or other American ordnance, and knows how to go far enough underground, or in mountain strongholds, to keep them out of our destructive capability (short of boots on the ground).
The Russians have reportedly tested their capability against American military assets, to their own loss. But the Russians also likely have plenty of Spetsnaz or other of their own assets on the ground in Syria. Russia does not want to get into a war with the U.S. ("believe me" to paraphrase a presidential sound bite). But the Russians will do what they can to protect Assad. Mostly this consists of disinformation campaigns and subversion.
In any case, if we can trust an Israeli intelligence analyst's five-year-old summary (I do), last night's raids essentially did very little to deter or reduce Assad's power to use whatever assets he has at his disposal to remain in power. The only way we will see Assad step down is over his dead body. The only way to kill him is to do it with ground troops, and they have to go through Russia to get to him.
Would the Russians go to war with America to save Assad? I don't know. But anyone who's read "The Art of War" would know that wars are won and lost long before the warriors meet on the battlefield. The fact that Assad is still ruling Syria should tell us a lot about his resolve. As an aside, the reasons Assad will never step down relate to his Alawite minority rule, and are similar to Saddam Hussein's situation in 2003. Should Assad leave, there's nowhere he could go, and his family along with all his Alawite associates would be slaughtered.
At the end of the day (to borrow a phrase from former press secretary Sean Spicer), all America, with Britain and France riding our electronic and stealth countermeasure-laden coattails, did last night, was to be the guy at the gym flexing his pecs. Because we can. We fulfilled a moral promise that President Trump made to the world, and preened in our "mission accomplished" success.
Bashar al-Assad is still in control of Syria. His people are still subject to being gassed. The Russians are still deeply embedded in Syria. Hizbollah and other terror groups still have unfettered travel and shelter in Syria. Israel still sits and quietly watches, acting only when it is in the Jewish state's immediate interest. And hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians live in wretched conditions, in constant fear of instant death.
Nothing is changed.