Prime ministers don’t choose the decisions that face them. But they have to judge which way to jump.
In 2013, Theresa May’s predecessor tried and failed to get approval for military action against President Assad. There was international alarm, then as now, about his suspected use of chemical weapons.
But MPs rejected David Cameron’s plan and he didn’t try again to persuade Parliament it was necessary.
This time, she has avoided that particular obstacle by taking action alongside the US and France while MPs are away.
- US and allies launch strikes on Syria chemical weapons sites
- Four RAF fighters bomb Syria ‘stockpile’
- Syria strikes: Latest updates
The prime minister will give a statement to MPs on Monday, and she’ll have to be prepared for irritation from many different sides.
But part of the government’s likely attempt to limit the political fallout will be emphasising time and again that the overnight attacks were limited, both in scale and in purpose. Government sources are stressing this morning that the attacks were strictly intended to target President Assad’s ability to create and use chemical weapons.
The government has not made a decision and has no desire to become embroiled more widely in the messy and complex Syrian civil war. Ministers clearly would rather that the Syrian leader was ousted, this military action is not part of a plan to do that.
This is direct response to the attacks on civilians in Douma, a military reprimand for the suspected use of chemical weapons that break the international rules.
But for all that the government hopes the attacks will be no more, and no less than that, conflict is messy, not politically clinical. If the strikes fail to take out Assad’s chemical weapons systems, do the three allies try again? That doesn’t seem to be the current plan.
But if the logic of the strikes is to prevent more chemical attacks taking place it can’t be completely ruled out. And if chemical weapons are used again in Syria, would the UK take part in a similar punishment?
If the government believes the principle must be upheld, then again, the logic suggests the same kind of punishment would be meted out another time. What happens if, as warned, there is some form of retaliation from Russia?
By the government’s admission these strikes are not part of a broader effort to change the dynamic in the Syrian war, but without a wider strategy what will really change? Just because Theresa May does not want to be dragged into longer term involvement in Syria it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.
The decision to act was in her control. What happens next is not within her grasp.
As the US and UK governments continue to discuss their potential response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma in Syria, what could military intervention achieve?
The critical military virtue of surprise has long since disappeared for the United States and its allies in the strikes it is planning against Syrian military facilities.
Indeed, Syrian forces have had more than two days to move their aircraft and other military assets into Russian bases at Latakia, Tartus and Khmeimim, where they will be within the protective bubbles of Russia’s highly capable S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
The Syrians have emptied their infantry bases and dispersed as much of their armed forces as possible, in anticipation of incoming Western missiles.
The Russians will undoubtedly try to protect their bases, if attacked, so the situation is fraught with superpower brinkmanship and the danger of accidental conflict.
For Western military planners the two greatest questions are what can they achieve militarily in this situation, and what strategic difference can it make?
- Theresa May summons cabinet to discuss Syria action
- Does Theresa May need MPs to approve UK action in Syria?
- Syria ‘chemical attack’: France’s President Macron says he has proof
- Firepower of key countries in Syrian crisis
With Syrian forces forewarned, dispersed and under Russian protection, Western strikes will have to concentrate on Syria’s fixed military facilities – bombing runways, destroying buildings and capital equipment where it remains in place.
Western attacks will probably try to destroy Syria’s military command and control system, possibly with bunker-busting bombs and deep penetration warheads. They are likely to try to dismantle the military infrastructure that Syria has effectively rebuilt since 2015.
More ambitiously, and also more risky, the United States might declare a longer-term policy of revisiting these targets to keep them out of use and have Syrian aircraft bottled up inside their Russian bases – in effect trying to operate a quasi “no-fly zone” in Syria, at least for a while.
Last year when the US struck President Assad’s Shayrat airbase in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the Syrian air force made sure it was seen to be back in action within a day. The US will be determined that this does not happen again, which is why we can expect this to be a more prolonged air campaign with repeated attacks on key sites.
What strategic purpose can be served by this?
It certainly won’t make any immediate difference to the civil population of Syria, who have suffered so much at the hands of their own government, and the multitude of rebel, terrorist and guerrilla groups, some of whom have intimidated, as much as they have represented, them.
And President Assad is unlikely to relent in his determination to consolidate his hold on the country.
- Why is there a war in Syria?
- Experts: Are we heading for a third world war?
So why take all the risks of escalation with Russia and the prospects of unintended consequences that normally follow?
On its own, military force is meaningless. It has to be part of a political strategy and in this case the strategy is about bigger issues than Syria itself and only offers a long-shot hope for the Syrian population.
The first objective is to push back against the increasing “normalisation” of chemical weapons being used in wars of any kind.
The taboo against them has been surprisingly strong since the end of World War One. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 has been one of the most effective disarmament measures in modern history. Syria is a signatory to it.
In 2013 President Obama claimed he would uphold that taboo as a “red line”, but then didn’t. And despite firm denials from the Assad government, there is an abundance of evidence that Syrian forces, with Russian connivance, have been using chemical weapons against their own people on a regular basis ever since.
Many Western politicians feel that – with all the moral grey areas of this situation – they cannot sell the pass on this issue yet again. It has become a test case for the international rule of law, which is under severe pressure on many fronts.
Beyond that, some argue effective military action would represent an acceptance that Western powers have got to get back into the game of Middle East politics at a time when the region is melting down.
The campaign against so-called Islamic State (IS) was always a geopolitical sideshow, and Western influence on what has been happening from Lebanon to the Yemen has been in steep decline.
Of course, it is tempting, and understandable, for Western leaders to want to leave it all alone. But while they took their eye off the ball fighting IS, the future of the area was being determined by Iran, Russia and partly also by Turkey.
- Syria war: Why Turkey’s battle for northern Syria matters
- Syria conflict: Will powers end up in direct war?
The calculation is whether long-term Western interests are served better by involvement than indifference to a constellation of powers that is sliding out of control.
And the hope for the Syrian population is that an effective military campaign could possibly push President Assad back into negotiations so that the war might end with something more humane than a vicious victory.
Using military force is never easy, but it can only be effective if it is part of a coherent and realistic political strategy.
About this piece
This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.
Professor Michael Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi), and associate director of the Strategic Studies Institute.
Edited by Jennifer Clarke.