The United States struck a Syrian air base in retaliation for a Syrian chemical attack on a village. The attack raises a number of questions and a general observation on U.S. strategy under President Donald Trump.
The first question is why the Syrians carried out the attack. The explanation from the regime appears to be that it was attacking an al-Qaida weapons storage facility and the gas was released. This is not utterly impossible, but it is highly unlikely. Sarin gas is destroyed by high temperatures, and this can happen during an explosion. The probability of the gas surviving, being released, and dispersing through the village is low enough to be dismissed.
Two other explanations are also reasonable. First, there is the possibility that a local commander took it in his own hands to use the chemicals. This is possible but unlikely. The Syrians likely place tight controls over the weapons. A second explanation is the most probable. The Syrian government, with Russian help, has regained control of a substantial part of Syria. That part is restive to say the least. The Syrians wanted to set an example of what is likely to happen to restive villages. In this scenario, this attack was intended to frighten potential insurgents within the territory controlled by the Syrian government. Since President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will likely never be loved in the retaken regions, the attack was intended to make the regime feared.
A second set of questions revolves around Russian behavior. The Russians intervened in Syria to save the Assad regime (and to demonstrate Russian power to their own public). Having intervened, they have a great deal of control over Assad, and their intelligence services should be positioned to know what was intended with the chemical attack. Russia is already under foreign criticism for supporting Assad. The more monstrous the regime’s behavior, the more difficult it is to defend Russian support for Assad. Russia has no strategic interest in Assad’s survival – the argument that it wants a naval port in Syria does not hold up. Supplying the base would depend on the Turks allowing passage, the base would be extremely vulnerable to American attack, and the Russians have more important problems than the fantasy of becoming a Mediterranean power.
The intervention was designed to demonstrate Russian power and Russian prudence as compared to the American mess in Iraq. Another chemical attack by the Syrians makes the Russians appear like either Assad’s brutal accomplices, or incapable of knowing Assad’s intentions or controlling them. The Russians now look like thugs or incompetents. The Russians’ failure to control their client undermines their mission of reshaping their perception. The Russian objection to American strikes, after their own failure to control a regime that survived only because of Russian intervention, leaves the Russians in an uncomfortable position. They didn’t have to be there, but they chose this course. It is unclear why the Russians weren’t in a position to block the chemical attack.
Perhaps the most important thing that will come out of the American action is that it provides a glimpse at the Trump administration’s national security policy. It would appear to be much more conventional than its communications strategy would indicate. Over time, the U.S. has developed a strategy of using airstrikes to counter actions it doesn’t like. Airstrikes can cause pain, but in the long run are unlikely to change the adversary’s policies. Going back to former President Bill Clinton’s administration, when such strikes were used in response to al-Qaida attacks in East Africa and on the USS Cole, the quid pro quo has been inflicting pain without demonstrating the willingness or capability to act decisively.
At the moment, decisive action in Syria is impossible. The United States currently has about a thousand troops in Syria. More than a hundred times that number would be needed to topple the Assad regime and try to pacify the country. As the U.S. learned in Iraq, it is much harder to pacify a country than to destroy its military and regime. The U.S. does not have sufficient forces in the region to topple another regime and to fight a counterinsurgency there. The Trump administration has made rehabilitating a force that has been engaged in warfare for over 15 years a priority. Intervening in Syria to the extent of regime change is not practical.
Trump felt he could not simply ignore what happened. As is always the case with presidents, he had multiple reasons for feeling this way. First, the use of chemical weapons spreads fear globally and, given the threat from terrorism, in the United States as well. Second, after extensive discussion of reducing American engagement in the world, when the moment came, doing nothing seemed not to be an option. Finally, the example of former President Barack Obama’s decision not to retaliate for a similar chemical attack compelled Trump to distinguish himself.
All presidents develop policies and talk about them. But in the final analysis, presidents are constrained by reality. Not doing something at least minimally effective would open the door to adversaries recalculating their actions on the premise the United States wouldn’t act. Trump had indicated a distaste for an extensive exposure of the United States to ongoing conflicts. If his word on this were final, the potential consequences might be greater than desirable. Therefore, he was constrained to do what other presidents in similar situations have done: carry out an action both minimal and doable, without expanded exposure on the ground. He has demonstrated both American power and its limits. He also confronted the impossibility of inaction, and followed a well-worn path.
Originally published on Geopolitical Futures.