In Florida, President Donald Trump and members of his administration get a videoconferenced briefing about the April 7, 2017, cruise missile strike on Syria.

In Florida, President Donald Trump and members of his administration get a videoconferenced briefing about the April 7, 2017, cruise missile strike on Syria. White House

The Syria Strike Was International Security Theater

It was designed to look as if it would keep us safer, while actually doing nothing of the sort.

We are all familiar with the phrase “security theater.” Those people-scanning machines at airports that work less than half of the time but cost local airports millions, not to mention waste everyone’s time at the airport? A border wall that will do nothing to lower crime, or bring back jobs to the U.S. working class? Both are examples of security theater: actions designed to look as if they will keep us safer, while actually doing nothing of the sort.

We are seeing the same thing now in Syria, only on a wider scale. U.S. President Donald Trump’s snap decision to bomb a Syrian airfield with cruise missiles — in the wake of an alleged (although not internationally verified) chemical attack by Syrian government forces on the town of Khan Sheikhoun —­ is nothing more than “international security theater.” The bombing raid did nothing to stop the long-running Syrian civil war; nor to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; nor to persuade Moscow to reduce its support for him.

Let’s break it down.

The 59 cruise missiles that hit the Al-Shayrat airfield Friday evening (about 4 a.m. local time) reportedly blew up 20 aircraft. But 24 hours later, the airfield was once again sending Syrian warplanes off to strike Khan Sheikhoun. (The Russians were notified an hour or so before the missiles arrived, which surely helped Syrian forces batten down the hatches.)

The airstrikes did not destroy any of Assad’s remaining stock of chemical weapons — and nor were they meant to. Striking chemical weapons depots with regular missiles does nothing more than disperse the deadly gas.

Further, no single airstrike is going to resolve the Syrian war, nor the massive refugee crisis that has accompanied it. Assad is not going to simply slink away because of a few U.S. cruise missiles.

Finally, Russia is hardly backing off. Instead, Moscow has announced that it is withdrawing from cooperation with U.S. forces to deconflict air action, a bid to avoid mistaken attacks on each other. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the strike “an act of aggression” and stated that the U.S. action had violated international law. Which it probably did; not to mention being, perhaps, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

So, what did the move accomplish? What theater usually does, and why politicians so often fall back on such strategies: it “looks good.” Interestingly, in this case, at the moment it looks good not just for Trump, but also for Putin and even Assad.

First and foremost, and no doubt high on minds at the White House, it made Trump “look presidential” at a time when his approval ratings have been not only in the cellar, but practically buried beneath the cellar. Every politician knows that military action against an external foe (real or not) almost always bring a big jump in popular support. And as expected, Trump’s strike has met mostly with domestic applause: from fellow Republicans, including many in Congress who opposed a similar move by Obama; from much of the mainstream media, earlier this year tagged as an “enemy of the people” by Trump; and, from initial impressions, also from the American public. And no one seems to mind the $50-million price tag.

Second, Trump’s action bolstered his Russian counterpart as well. Vladimir Putin gets to paint the United States as an aggressor, and to rail against Washington for breaching international law. He gets to talk tough for his domestic audience, undermine America’s already abysmal approval rates abroad, and even put some distance between himself and the embattled Trump administration, which is caught up in an investigation of ties and even possible collusion with Russian spies. 

Third, even Assad’s reputation has perhaps been burnished rather than further tarred – not, to be honest, that it could get much worse. Assad continues to present himself as the “strongman” of the region, and to freely press his civil war using any and all means. All the while thumbing his nose at the United Nations and the West.

Unfortunately, as with all security theater, international security theater also comes with a cost. Who is paying the price? The American people. The Syrian people. And the rule of law.