When something happens which is deeply necessary and long-awaited, it is all too easy, even briefly, to give in to relief.
So it was when, last Friday, Britain, France and the United States joined together to strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad in response to the regime’s probable use of chemical weapons on the besieged city of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta.
It is not currently known exactly which chemical agent was used, though evidence released by French intelligence suggests chlorine; other investigations posit that the gas, which killed over 50, may have included a nerve agent, such as sarin. But that the regime was responsible seems overwhelmingly likely.
Chemical war crimes are essential to the way the Assad regime fights. Its use of sarin to kill in Khan Sheikhun just over a year ago was hardly the beginning; but it was the beginning of something else – despite limited American punitive action, which included a retributive strike on the al-Shayrat air base, the following year brought over 40 reports of regime attacks using chlorine. The French suggest that at least 11 of these were likely chemical attacks
In the course of that year, the world stood still while the regime used chemical means to attack the Syrian people. The promises of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, that his country would punish chemical attacks seemed hollow as attacks continued, but there was no action.
The United States was over-eager to maintain an artificial distinction between attacks involving chlorine, of which there have been many, and sarin, of which there have been fewer, because the latter is a nerve agent.
This seemed an attempt to dodge the responsibility the United States had to Syria’s people, and to avoid the promise Donald Trump had made that he would prevent ‘beautiful babies’ ever again suffering death by chemical means.
After the Douma attack, things suddenly looked different.
Not only was there an immediate response from the American president – demotically delivered through social media – condemning ’Animal Assad’ and his backers in Russia and Iran. Something appeared to have changed. The president appeared to have reacted to the chemical attack on Douma in personal, emotional terms.
In the days which followed Trump’s first pronouncement, speculation reigned. Emotions rose and fell. There was the sense that the United States and France had momentum behind their bid to punish Assad. It looked as though a grand coalition was being assembled – a coalition of the extremely willing, standing ready to punish the regime.
But as the week went on, action seemed less likely.
James Mattis, the US secretary of defence, was reported to be fighting a dogged rear-guard action, sounding notes of caution, attempting to outlast the most dramatic proposals for punishing Assad, and their proponents.
Amid all this, it looked possible that, despite Trump’s and Macron’s promises, despite their emotions, despite their public statements, Assad would once again avoid retribution – that his regime’s actions would meet with no consequences and that he would be left free to employ the chemical tactics which had served him well in the past and which had, by this time, delivered him Douma.
This perception gave way to relief when Trump announced the beginning of a French, British and American mission against the regime.
When the strikes began, and news began to filter onto social media, opponents of Assad across the world were jubilant.
As is inevitable, for hours after the operation begun, confusion dominated.
Anti-air fire from regime defences were mistaken for coalition strikes; misinformation – especially regarding the success rate of the regime’s attempts to down Tomahawk missiles – also did the rounds.
In the first outpouring of reporting, it was briefly assumed that the strikes were larger in scale than had been expected. It was said that the allies had targeted Hizballah encampments, elite regime military formations and even the presidential palace, standing tall above Damascus.
These were wild rumours, but they were widely believed. Many who were anti-Assad derived a transient sense of hope from the mere possibility, but the truth of things rather dented their optimism.
Slowly but surely, it was revealed that the attack was in no way comprehensive. It had targeted three sites, all of them connected to the regime’s chemical war efforts. But it had done nothing to arrest the regime’s ability to deploy chemical weapons from the air; it had done nothing to prevent the regime from flattening cities with conventional weapons; it had done nothing, indeed, to disincentivise acts of barbarism.
In an attempt to work within strict limits – in part, no doubt, in order to appease domestic electorates – the three allies had reduced their intervention to an almost symbolic gesture.
But the Syrian regime is capable of its own symbols. It attempted to project an untrue image of unruffled calm. The regime propagated its line thoroughly and consistently. That line holds that not only did the strikes fail to threaten Assad; they have actually bolstered him.
More significantly, and more sinisterly, the regime wished to demonstrate ‘business as usual’ in the matter of its brutality. The regime readies its war machine, keen to demonstrate that, where it counts, it will still be able to do anything it likes to its enemies and the country’s civilian population without censure or interruption.
Though the United States, Britain and France have done something to signal their seriousness, and have in some small way arrested the regime’s capacity to produce chemical weapons, this effort has fallen short, and leaves the regime and its backers reassured.
The regime cannot be prodded into good behaviour. It must be confronted. Its transgressions must be punished. And they must be punished not, as has been the case, incrementally and in a manner which broadcasts its own limits, but rather decisively and dramatically.
Only when the regime’s survival is truly threatened can it be checked, and only then can the relief some prematurely expressed last week be justified, and made real.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.