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Syria airstrikes were ‘masterfully done.’ Here’s how to finish the job

  • British, French and U.S. strikes on Syria were successful, and may deter another chemical attack—for a while.
  • But more significantly, action by British and French military action indicates political movement toward a solution is possible.
  • Syria must, ultimately be reconstructed and here is the opportunity for Europe and perhaps the U.S. to redress the tragedy.
Fireman extinguish smoke that rises from the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018.
Hassan Ammar | AP
Fireman extinguish smoke that rises from the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018.

The U.S., British and French strikes on Syria's chemical warfare facilities are over, for now. Militarily, they were masterfully done-on target, little collateral damage, and minimal risks of escalation.

Perhaps they will deter, for a while, another Syrian chemical attack on civilians. But the most significant aspect of the strikes was that the British and French participated, for this has great implications for the future.

More than twenty-five years ago the British and French, and slowly the Germans and others, recognized that civil war in a then-distant and obscure Yugoslavia posed a threat that could not be ignored. More than 100,000 killed, 2 million people displaced, horrendous war crimes committed.

Western Europe finally awakened to the threat to its interests and security, and responded, first through the UN with peacekeeping, and, ultimately, when that failed, with NATO and the U.S.

Seven years of civil war

In Syria, after seven years of civil war, the rise of ISIS and its not-quite defeat, minimalistic U.S. actions, multiple efforts by neighboring powers and Russia to finish the fight militarily, the war there is finally winding down. The costs have been horrendous - perhaps three-quarters of a million killed, more than five million refugees, and a country of more than 23 million people devastated.

Syria is more distant than Yugoslavia, and Europe has been slower to react. But the challenge to its interests is even greater. The humanitarian tragedy and the political impact of millions trying to reach the security of Europe have been deeply unsettling.

The efficacy of the EU has been roundly challenged, destructive nativist and nationalist sentiments have taken root, Turkey has become not a buffer for Europe but a problematic partner, and Russia has been given new opportunities to make mischief.

But British and French military action indicates political movement toward a solution is possible. It is probably too late for the West to pull off another Bosnia-like rescue with peacekeepers and NATO. And after failures in Iraq and prolonged efforts on Afghanistan, there is little will to do so.

But Syria must, ultimately be reconstructed, and there is the opportunity for Europe and perhaps the U.S. to redress the tragedy: reconstruction requires money, and this is Europe's great asset and leverage.

Syria must be rebuilt

Syria must be rebuilt and it's refugees and displaced millions given the opportunity to return home. Its oil industry alone may take perhaps $40 billion to be reconstructed, its cities and infrastructure many billions more.

The European banks and financial institutions which will underwrite this reconstruction must bend the financial engineering to strategic imperatives. Refugees must be provided the security, financial support and economic opportunities which can enable their return home.

Excessive violence and crimes of war must be investigated and punished, terrorists driven away and Syria's traditional tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity restored.

Above all, Russia must not be advanced the funds directly or indirectly to assume control of Syria's oil resources, lest it further tighten its grip on Europe's energy supplies.

Transition poses difficult issues 

Transitioning from war to reconstruction poses difficult issues. Must all fighting stop for reconstruction to begin? Will Assad remain as president or be replaced? Can Syria remain whole or must it be subdivided into religious and ethnic cantons? What security can be provided returning refugees? Who will investigate and mete out justice? How will foreign forces-Iranian, Russian, and others be persuaded to leave? How will Syria's eventual oil revenues be shared?

Admittedly, if the U.S. and European countries had come together through NATO several years ago to deal with refugees and manage the conflict, they would have had greater say on the issues at hand. But artfully applied, financial resources can drive almost the same solution.

Most of Syria's neighbors have had a hand in the conflict. They need to step back militarily and step up financially and work together with Europe. Saudi and Qatari financial resources funneled through international organizations will be essential to supplement European banks.

Turkey must be assisted financially in hosting and transiting returnees, but is must also step back from its irredentist claims on northern Syria. Iran may find a constructive role for its oil revenues working through these same institutions for reconstruction.

The key is to begin now to work through the vexing issues associated with the reconstruction and use the imperatives of reconstruction to drive peace and promote cooperation in the region. And financial commitments can be leveraged to incentivize this. The European Union, not an ad hoc grouping of Russia, Turkey and others, should meet urgently to begin work on these issues.

US military must remain in place

For now, U.S. elements should remain in place. They can finish the work against ISIS, and assure that there will be no end-of-conflict land grabs by Russian or Iranian mercenaries. The Russians, too, can have their say.

But the Russians have already realized, no doubt, that they lack the financial means to fix even Syria's oil, much less it's infrastructure. The Iranians, struggling at home with a faltering economy, and earnestly seeking foreign investment, can silently disengage, as the imperatives for reconstruction take priority over sectarian conflict and hegemonic aspirations.

Will the would-be autocrats and new imperialists who saw such opportunities in Syria's tragedy let go now? Yes, if wise, mature and wealthy Europe will assert itself. Call together a Syria Reconstruction Council, hear the issues, sum the needs, and allocate the resources, conditionally. Measure progress on the ground, and hold the various parties accountable.

Something like this was tried early on in Afghanistan, not too successfully. But Syria is nearby and urgent.

It's time for Europe, backed by the U.S., to assert itself. For now, as all warring parties are exhausted, the euro can prove mightier than the sword. And a world scale tragedy could become the focus for regional cooperation and progress. It will take leadership, of course, but maybe we are now seeing the first stirrings of such leadership from Europe.

Commentary by Retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Follow him on Twitter @ GeneralClark.

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