It appeared straightforward for Donald Trump – a multinational military intervention in Syria seemed to be the only option.
When U.S. president Donald Trump threatened to strike Syria in response to this weekend’s suspected poison gas attack on the town of Douma, international paranoia followed the announcement. Predictions of a mass US-Russian confrontation surfaced with fears that the world was about to witness the initiation of WW3. In a Tweet, the President warned that missiles “will be coming……nice and new and smart”; hours after Russia warned Washington against launching military strikes in the country. After 48 hours, Trump sent out another Tweet throwing political pundits into disarray with his cryptic message – “the strikes may happen or not at all.”
This perceived change of mind and the delay in Trump’s usual forthcoming policy of tell-all tweets was the first indicator that the decision to intervene in the modern world’s largest and most complex, multi-state, proxy battleground, was not an easy call to make. There is a degree of unpredictability in the behaviour of actors on both sides in recent months, as well as increasing disregard for internationally accepted norms and practices.
If the US was going to step in, it had to be a swift, clean, hit-and-bolt operation. On the one hand, it should help Washington reclaim the perceived role of a dominant world power and global peacekeeper in the midst of a worrying Russo-Chinese global ascent. On the other hand, it should cost Washington minimal long-term investment, in a region where power has already been solidified in the hands of the victors and the booty already claimed.
Eventually, the U.S. and its allies did carry out surgical strikes against Syrian regime strongholds, on targets associated with the alleged chemical weapon capabilities. Reportedly 105 missiles were launched by American, French and British forces. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported that the targets included specifically “scientific research centres, several military bases, and the bases of [Iran’s] Republican Guard and Fourth Division,” in and around Damascus.
The bombing was the biggest intervention by Western countries against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his superpower ally Russia, but the three countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapon capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.
It is clear that thee allied forces were trying to maintain a careful balance: upholding their red line against the use of chemical weapons, without crossing Moscow’s red lines against toppling President Bashar al-Assad or targeting Russian forces. It is notable that for the first time in Trump’s Presidential history, he has enjoyed almost global unanimous support from major allies in a foreign policy measure.
The justifications put forward by the US, UK and France for the air strikes in Syria have focused on the need to maintain the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, to degrade President Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and to deter further chemical attacks against civilians in Syria.
President Trump has announced since then that the mandate for an allied attack is open-ended, but Defence Secretary Jim Mattis later said the strikes would be repeated only if Assad’s forces took further action that warranted a response.
British Prime Minister Theresa May statements set out a clear objective; The strikes were not a call for regime change or to subvert the balance in the civil war. The message was clear that British involvement was hinged on two overarching aims: One – to degrade and deter the use of nuclear and chemical capabilities by the Assad regime in Syria; and two – to set a precedent for the international community to not ‘normalize the use of chemical weapons’
The retaliatory response from Western powers has been cautious to say the least. But that doesn’t mean these strikes aren’t without risk.
The logic behind this attack is to show that the United States is committed to retaliatory strikes any time the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons. The strikes have served as a warning that US policy will look to open-ended bombing of Assad’s forces unless and until he stops using his chemical weapons.
And that creates a serious risk of escalation, and deeper US involvement in one of the world’s deadliest and most dangerous civil wars.
What have the strikes achieved?
The fact remains that little is likely to visibly alter the military balance on the ground—or the outcome of the war. With the help of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hezbollah manpower, the Assad regime has set up its stronghold over Syria’s major cities including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus and most recently, the site of the alleged chemical attack, Eastern Ghoutta.
During the past year, the regime has consolidated its recaptured lands to make a more governable whole. The opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the rebel Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, virtually stand little chance.
Even post the military strikes that hit Syria, the international frenzy that had been created around what many deemed the initiation of World War Three, saw an anticlimactic effect.
The Western strike may temporarily impact the conflict, but few believe it will be a blow that Assad and his allies can’t absorb and overcome.
The limited strikes did not destroy the Syrian government’s entire chemical weapons stockpile, let alone seriously set back its ability to fight anti-government rebels. Compared to the recent Israeli air raid on the T-4 base, the result of these April 14 strikes seems rather insignificant.
In truth, this was a largely symbolic strike, designed to signal loud and clear to the Syrian government that the use of chemical weapons would provoke American retaliation, thus hopefully deterring Assad from doing so again.
President Assad is still in complete power. The Syrian army suffered no casualties and the situation on ground is not even significantly altered. In fact, a few hours after the strike, a video of a triumphant looking President Assad walking into his office in Damascus, posted by his own account was doing the rounds on social media. Footage of Syrians celebrating their Syria’s relentlessness against any ‘foreign intervention’ was reported globally.
To Assad, it is clear that the US doesn’t have any strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict and is not even able to employ an effective mechanism to preclude the use of chemical weapons. This year, after the “perfectly executed” strikes – as Trump described them – it became clear that there is nothing much behind the White House rhetoric except populism.
If anything, more questions and ambiguity have been raised for the tri-parte alliances unanimous call for their move against Assad. The specific US strikes against Syrian chemical bases and reactors show that the US had prior knowledge of where the chemical weapons were kept – and the lack of civilian casualties or excessive collateral damage from the targeted US strikes proves this. This begs the question as to why these bases weren’t attacked or at least acknowledged before.
Secondly, the Assad regime coupled with Russian military assistance has been brutal in its bid to consolidate and govern besieged territories in Syria. The offensive in Eastern Ghoutta alone has claimed more than 1,600 civilian lives and internally displaced more than 45,000 people according to the United Nations. More poignantly, this has not been Assad’s first use of chemical weapons in Syria. In fact, as recently as 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons, stating that these weapons would never be used against the Syrian people, but only against “external aggression.
US Intelligence Agencies for a number of years preceding this announcement had assessed that Syria had a stockpile of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents such as Sarin and VX.
The timing of this sudden call for a global response to Assad’s latest use of chemical weapons, reiterated the idea that the U.S. policy has long since accepted that if Assad must, he is allowed to commit violence against his own people using conventional weapons only.
This directly translates to the idea that perhaps these strikes must not be painted entirely in light of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that the West claims to champion. Rather, the use of chemical weapons, in the grander scheme of international order, posits the danger that Syria or more alarmingly, its stronger and more prudent allies Russia or Iran, in an alliance of their own may do much worse to threaten the security of their opponents than the Syrian regime ever could.
The message to Assad appears to be that the regime can continue its war and Assad still gets to win, just not by using chemical weapons.
History accounts for the fact that there has been little success for US-led Western foreign intervention in the Middle East. Trump had been a fierce critic of any U.S. involvement in Syria and Afghanistan during President Barack Obama’s administration. His election campaign witnessed his vehement anti-war stance, a bid to put America ‘first’of putting America first and a strict policy of using taxpayer money only to further American interests, domestically.
Thus, recent events put to test Trump’s allegiance to his word. Regarding the actual decision to strike or withhold, it is believed that POTUS was in a personal conundrum of his own. Caught between his obsession to not appear weak against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and to be seen in a different, more active light than his predecessor Obama (who is remembered for his notoriously lagged Syrian policy) and Trump’s strong disdain against further involvement in Syria, the President from the very outset was forced to pick an option between portraying either of two visible weaknesses. to not be caught in a lose-lose situation. Now following his second military strike in Syria, regardless of his ‘Mission Achieved!’ hoorah, the US position has been compromised. Assad has now openly defied him and exposed the ineffectiveness of that earlier deterrent, so his instincts could be to attack.
Certain key observations regarding the triparte attack have also been noted:
This is not the first attack by the US in retaliation to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
In April 2017, Donald Trump ordered the first US retaliatory attack on Syria in response to a chemical attack by Assad, resulting in 59 US Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting the Shayrat airbase. It failed to deter the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and the regimes forces from using chemical weapons again.
The US claimed to have destroyed 20% of Syria’s operational air strength as per Defense Secretary James Mattis, – and to have seriously degraded the base. The then White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the strikes had a limited intent – to deter chemical weapons – and were at peace with Trump’s “America first” policy.
The difference this year was that Washington blamed not only the Syrian regime for the chemical attack but also its patron, Moscow. This gave the situation a higher degree of tension, increasing speculations about a direct clash between the US and Russia.
Presuming Assad’s guilt then and today, the April 2017 Tomahawk strikes did not sufficiently deter him, so whatever follows now must be greater. Some proposed destroying completely Assad’s air force and suspected chemical weapon dumps.
But the question remains – what if these punitive measures do not work? The chemical compound could be replaced and what if more chemical attacks occur?
By acting now as it has, there is an ominous prediction that the Trump administration will be committing to acting in ever greater ways in the future if Assad calls the US bluff.
Why did Russia not respond to US strikes on Syria?
Most defense analyst perceived President Trump’s delay between his first urgent tweet calling for immediate action and his second tweet of fiddling with the timing of US strikes as exposing POTUS’s greatest dilemma – measuring how Russia would react and this hint of indecisiveness from the White House did not go unnoticed in Moscow.
Much like the last US attack in Shayrat base in 2017, Moscow understood that the strikes on Syria are more of a diversion for Trumps domestic troubles at home and not really in retribution for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma and definitely not an attempt to influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict. As it was with the US strikes in April, there was no real threat to Russian military facilities.
The US strikes were simply a demonstration of force.
AlJazeera reported consultations between Russia and the United States appear to have taken place in the week prior to the US strikes. The fact that Moscow had confidence in this coordination was reflected in the presence of a delegation from the ruling United Russia Party headed in Damascus, the day the strikes were conducted. Moreover, the established ‘de-confliction’ direct communication line between Washington and Moscow throughout the seven-year Syrian Civil war has meant that all US unilateral actions in Syria , including the recent strikes, were communicated to Russia beforehand in order to prevent any harm to Russia’s vast military bases or personnel.
Certainly, aircraft kept their distance to keep out of Russia’s range. All attacks avoided any Russian area.
Moscow was then able to afford its hostile rhetoric to Washington’s strikes and compound its own stance all the while the US-Russia coordination on ground ensured that neither fell in the other’s harms way.
Expecting a different reaction from Moscow would be reckless. Despite the emotional rhetoric, the Russian leadership is trying not to cross the line and provoke a conflict.
A direct confrontation with a militarily superior US-led coalition would mean a huge diversion for Russian policy in Syria and a fatal threat to Russian hegemony in the region, not to mention that it could start a global armed conflict within Syria’s deeply fragmented, heavily armed cluster of superpowers.
Russia has unsurprisingly chosen not to respond to repeated Israeli air raids in Syria, either. Over the past six months, Israel has consistently targeted Syrian infrastructure and military facilities. But Russia has a bigger endgame in mind and Putin insists on keeping his focus on securing and legitimizing his authority without any brawl.
Even a day after the strikes, Russia launched huge supersonic missile in a show of military power. The massive P-500 Bazalt is a supersonic cruise missile capable of travelling at speeds in excess of 1,800mph – more than five times the speed of sound.
Analysts and experts have speculated whether this is Russia’s way of flouting its military prowess in a global message that appears to say that in future, Russia may not perhaps exhibit such patience to any US intervention on its turf in Syria or against its allies – alternatively, perhaps it was just a populist show of power for the masses back home.
The White House is acutely aware that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself far more committed than Western actors over the course of Syria’s seven-year conflict. In case Russia was ever to react by targeting the numerous US-led bases in Kurdish-controlled Eastern and Northern Syria, it is very plausible that Washington would struggle to respond given its limited leverage in the Syrian landscape.
In the end, this particular incident of “formal” strikes against Syria was the optimal solution for both countries to ease tension around the situation with chemical weapons in Douma. With zero casualties reported, the US has lauded itself for its principled stance and Trump as a fierce, just, rallying leader of the free world and Russia still maintains the status quo in Syria.
The entire episode has therefore been seen as international diplomacy at its best.