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International Politics

Challenge and Response, but No Policy Change: US Strikes Assad


On the night of April 6th, US naval forces in the Mediterranean launched 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian government facility at Shayrat Air Force Base. The Tomahawk missiles were launched from the frigates USS Porter and USS Ross in response to a deadly chemical attack carried out on Tuesday the 4th against the civilians of Khan Shaykun. The Assad government was deemed responsible and the loyalist base in Homs Governate was identified by US intelligence sources as the location from which the strike aircraft departed. The nerve gas used resulted in approximately one hundred civilian casualties, mostly women and children, and was immediately denounced by world leaders and organizations as a crime against humanity.

This was not the first time chemical weapons were used in the disastrous Syrian civil war. There had been at least five previous attacks using Sarin nerve agent, and dozens more alleged attacks using less potent chlorine and mustard gas. The UN investigative commission found that many of these alleged attacks were carried out by Syrian rebel forces, but the largest and most notorious incidents involving nerve agent were perpetrated by the Ba’athist forces of Bashar al-Assad. The large scale Ghouta attack in 2013[1] by butcher Bashar almost resulted in a US-led regime change campaign, with President Obama declaring that Mr. Assad had crossed a “red line”. In the end, Russia negotiated a deal with the US in which the Syrian government agreed to handover its stocks of chemical munitions for destruction in return for US forbearance. In fact, the specialist vessel Cape Ray destroyed almost 600 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemical stocks within a year of the deal being reached.

In the wake of this new outrage, the response has been predictable:

  1. The international community denounced the attack, called it “unacceptable” and demanded the removal of Mr. Assad without any proposed means of achieving it;
  2. The Syrian and Russian governments both denied any involvement by themselves or their partners, perhaps suggesting that the Syrian rebels had bombed themselves with airplanes that they do not possess;
  3. President Trump also denounced the attack as vile and unacceptable and somehow managed to blame President Obama for his weakness in not dealing with Assad in 2013. This profound and reprehensible piece of hypocrisy ignores the fact that Mr. Trump publicly urged restraint in 2013 while also proclaiming during the 2016 campaign that the United States should be cooperating with Russia and Assad’s Syrians to wipe out ISIS.

Nonetheless, two days later, the President authorized the strike against the Syrian air base. Russia and Syria have denounced this as a vile and unprovoked aggression, while the “no skin in the game” peanut gallery (a.k.a. Europe and Saudi Arabia) loudly applauded the measure, expressing their desire that the US expand the campaign with the goal of crippling and removing Assad. As always, our coalition partners are perfectly willing to fight to the last American soldier in this endeavor.

Unfortunately for the champions of regime change, this strike is highly unlikely to signal a change in US policy towards Syria:

  • The US struck a fixed target rather than the air defense network. This means that there is no follow-up strike by fixed wing aircraft planned, which is what would be required to ensure that the airfield was put out of commission and that maximum damage to aircraft and installations was achieved;
  • This was single missile strike against a single airfield; a broader plan to destabilize the Assad regime would have hit many more targets, especially mobile air defense batteries, while the element of surprise favored the attack by stand-off weapons;
  • In fact, the US surrendered the element of surprise at the outset by informing the Russian government ahead of time of the strike. This was to ensure that we avoid a major escalation by killing Russian soldiers or airmen, but we also knew that the Russians would tell the Syrians and thus mitigate the damage to movable equipment;
  • There do not appear to be any unusual deployments of Marines or Carrier Strike Groups to the Mediterranean, which could be expected if a major assault to unseat Assad were imminent. According to the US Navy, the MEU’s and CSG’s have continued with their routine deployments and schedule this week – with due consideration that operational security concerns would not allow them to make such a deployment public.

Clearly, the purpose was a demonstration of resolve rather than a truly strategic strike or the prelude to regime change. The Assad government, probably with Russian agreement but perhaps independently, decided to make an early test of the Trump Administration. The use of chemical weapons is so flagrant a challenge that it would be impossible for the new President to ignore, as he might “merely” another large scale massacre using conventional weapons. If Trump had folded or worse, questioned the responsibility of the Assad regime, then the Syrians would know that they could push hard against US interests: attacking the SDF forces besieging Raqqah, for example. It would have been a clear message of weakness to the Iranians and the Russians as well.

President Trump’s decision to order a one-off, tit-for-tat strike against the Syrian regime must therefore be seen in this light. A clear challenge was issued, a clear response was made. It was proportional in that a single attack was dealt responded to by a single strike. It avoided Russian casualties, preventing both an unwanted escalation and avoiding gifting President Putin with an easy domestic propaganda win: dead Russian farm boys killed by US cruise missiles would provide a welcome distraction from the anti-corruption demonstrations taking place across Russia, as well as the terrible economy, and growing weariness with the Syria intervention. It does not represent a fundamental shift in US policy in Syria.

The Russians understand this. Of course, they will protest in the United Nations – an action they know will be futile since they routinely ignore Western-led UN protests themselves – and they have announced that they will suspend cooperation with the US on aircraft collision avoidance. This sounds more dramatic than it is: US and Coalition aircraft are rarely in the same sectors as Russian aircraft[2]. All this is noise, necessary and expected propaganda for domestic consumption. It would not surprise me at all if the Russians very quietly went back to sharing aircraft location information in a week or two. If the Russians were seriously worried about possible US regime change, they would be reinforcing their ground troop footprint in Syria and sending a much stronger warning signal: probably by using their already plentiful S-400 batteries to shoot at or even shoot down a Coalition (but not a US) aircraft. The fact that they have done none of those things (yet) supports the conjecture that they understand how this game needs to play out.

The situation will continue to develop. The Russians and/or the Syrians might consider that a further test is necessary and could push back against the US or a US ally, such as the Kurds. President Trump is also said to be considering further military action, though it seems unlikely unless there is additional provocation. For the moment, there is no indication that the US has altered its priorities in Syria: this week’s Coalition targets mirror last week’s and have even fallen slightly. Next week will demonstrate more clearly if there is any change in the pattern of US strikes.

It is probably not coincidental that the timing of the US retaliation coincides with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States. Mr. Trump has said he intends to establish a friendship with the Chinese leader, even as tensions between the US and China remain high due to a variety of complicating factors: the ongoing dispute over conflicting South China Sea claims, North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and the deployment of US anti-ballistic missile batteries to South Korea. An early demonstration of US resolve in Syria – an infinitely weaker foe – may very well send a clear message to President Xi, and thus avoid a thornier challenge in the future from the Chinese. If so, this would be a clever stratagem.

It may also be coincidental that the President continue to sink deeper into the mire of the Russian hacking scandal as more and more of his associates are revealed to have had pre-election contacts with Russian businessmen, Russian mafiosi, and Russian intelligence types. Not only does military action always provide a useful distraction from domestic woes, but what better way to quell any questions of quid pro quo’s with Mr. Putin than to pick a fight with one of his closest remaining allies? It is too much of a stretch to believe it was planned this way, but I don’t doubt that Mr. Trump’s supporters will make maximum use of this story to distract and deflect Congressional investigation in possibly felonious links between the Administration and the Kremlin.

I am predisposed to find faults with almost anything President Trump does, but in this case, I believe he has acted prudently. It is entirely possible that the initiative and the recommendation came from Secretary Mattis and NSC Chief McMaster, with input from Secretary Tillerson. The former two are highly competent military professionals, while Secretary Tillerson appears to be at least competent. Thank God they are on the Cabinet; and I sincerely hope that their influence over the President continues to grow. Neverthless, the buck stops at the President’s desk and it was Mr. Trump’s decision to take the advice of his experts. The credit accrues to him, just as the blame would have.

Sources and Notes

[1] This attack against a rebel-held neighborhood of Damascus resulted in over 300 deaths and thousands of injuries. The chemical agents were delivered by ground-launched rockets.

[2] US and Coalition aircraft most strike in the areas east of the Euphrates River: Raqqah, Ain Issa, Al Shadaddi, Deir ez Zour, Albu Kamal. Russian aircraft, for the most part, fly missions west of the Euphrates: Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. The greatest risk of collision or misidentification is between Russian and Turkish aircraft, but the Turks will undoubtedly be doubly careful after the consequences of their 2015 shoot down of a Russian Su-24 Fencer.

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