One-off surgical strikes like the kind carried out by the U.S. against the Syrian regime on Thursday have had a spotty record of effectiveness, raising questions over the latest assault’s ability to alter the course of the six-year-old Syrian conflict, according to military experts.
The strikes against a Syrian military airfield, which came in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces on Tuesday, appear one-off and limited in scope.
“This is all tactical,” said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. “The only way this is effective is to go all in.”
Surgical strikes are intended for a specific military target. In this case it was to put the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on notice that the Trump administration has drawn a line on the use of chemical weapons and intends to enforce it. The threshold for chemical use was drawn and later abandoned by the Obama administration after Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons arsenal under a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia.
“The Trump administration has now drawn a line and said we’re not going to tolerate chemical weapons attacks and the ball is in Russia’s court,” said Linda Robinson, a senior defense policy researcher at RAND.
Past U.S. presidents have had varying degrees of success with surgical strikes.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered a series of airstrikes against Libyan government targets in response to a Libyan terrorist attack against a Berlin discotheque 10 days earlier.
The air raid did not dislocate the regime of Moammar Gadhafi but did it eventually lead him to dismantle Libya’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in 2004, Blaise Misztal, director of the national security program at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said.
“The strike did not necessarily lead to a major change in the regime domestically but it certainly changed some of its external behavior,” Misztal said.
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton expanded the use of surgical airstrikes to pressure Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
In 1993, U.S. ships fired 23 Tomahawk missiles into downtown Baghdad to penalize Iraq for a failed assassination of former President George H. W. Bush. And in 1998, U.S. ships in the Arabian and Red Seas launched almost 90 cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan in response to the al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
So frequent did the the use of retaliatory strikes under Clinton become that critics came to pejoratively refer to it as “cruise missile foreign policy” and “cruise missile diplomacy.” In Roggio’s words, cruise missiles were the “drones of the 90s” and far less effective.
Saddam’s behavior did not improve. Al-Qaida hatched the attacks of 911 under Taliban protection.
“I think we saw how effective cruise missile diplomacy was particularly during the Clinton years,” Roggio said.
But the assault on Syria was more than a pinprick strike, Robinson said. During the strike, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. While that number pales by comparison to the roughly 500 fired at the outset of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was larger than the 47 Obama ordered against IS in September 2014 as he rolled out an air campaign against the group, she said.
“There was actual degradation of the Syrian regime’s military capability,” RAND researcher Robinson said.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the missiles targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars.
The Syrian army announced on Friday that six people had been killed and several others wounded during the strikes.
Senior U.S. officials said U.S. has no immediate plans to for additional strikes against the Syrian regime.
“We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary,” U.S. envoy Nikki Haley told the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
In carrying out the strikes, the Trump administration hinted at future military action. Robinson said the next round of strikes will be even stronger.
That is because “the interpretation would be he clearly did not get the message that the new administration is intent upon to holding the Assad regime to account” concerning the 2013 agreement, Robinson said.