When Donald Trump launched missiles against Syria in 2017, he did so within 72 hours of the offending chemical weapons strike.
On Monday, the President said there would be action within “24 to 48 hours” – five days later that timeline has long passed and there have been no airstrikes.
So does this suggest a change of heart or something more complicated, and is there a cost to delaying?
Here’s what will be going on behind the scenes.
1. Coalition Complexity:
If Donald Trump was acting alone then he might have launched airstrikes already.
One consequence of acting as a coalition is the need to travel at the pace of the slowest member of the team.
Each government – Washington, Paris, London – has its own domestic politics to arrange. Military assets must be moved into position and this can take a few days.
2. Building the picture:
It takes times to put a full intelligence picture together.
Before finalising strike options, the overall command will need a clear idea of what is where – chemical stockpiles, Russian troops, Syrian aircraft etc.
If the plan is for a series of strikes over a number of days, planners will want to map that out as best they can (even the best intelligence doesn’t last long on the battlefield).
Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron will want to know what is achievable and at what cost.
Such is the situation in Syria that the intelligence picture prior to the suspected chemical attack would have already been pretty good, but preparing for war elevates it to another level – the need for detail is great.
3. Risk of delay?
Military intelligence has detected the movement of military hardware, either to the safety of Iran or under the cloak of protection at Russia’s base outside Latakia on Syria’s west coast (the assumption being the allies won’t bomb it).
Although this might have the effect of saving some aircraft from attack, it shouldn’t undermine the overall purpose of airstrikes – to disable Syrian air capability.
As long as runways are heavily pot-holed, and ammo dumps, fuel depots and command posts destroyed, the Syrian jets won’t be able to return, thus rendering them relatively ineffective.
US and British spy planes have been flying continuous missions close to Syria, monitoring and mapping movements – if Syrian forces do try to hide, the coalition will know where.
4. Beyond airstrikes
There has been a working assumption that US-led action will be in the form of airstrikes.
While this might well be the most visible and dramatic element to the West’s response, it is likely to be backed up by other measures.
The Trump administration has been itching to take action against Iran – the President has made no secret of his dislike for the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama presidency.
This is The White House’s opportunity to leverage international sanctions against Tehran and I bet they’re looking at options.
The drawing up of sanctions takes time; it isn’t something you can do overnight, especially if you’re trying to persuade others to join you.
We’ve been told the “hotline” between the US and Russia is open and in use.
This sits in a secure first-floor room of the US air operations centre at Al Udeied Air Base in Qatar.
Russia has hinted it is wanting to sort this out by talking – Moscow will expect airstrikes but both sides will want to limit the potential for Russian casualties.
This ultimately will be an attack on Syria and Syrian forces, and no one wants an escalation beyond that.
It has only been six days since the appalling suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma.
Although it might seem to some like little steam has come out of the situation, it is my assessment that considerable work is ongoing behind the scenes to prepare a comprehensive retaliation package, cognisant of the risks.
A campaign of wide scope takes time to plan – better the US and her allies act with cool heads than in the heat of the moment.