Making Sense of Washington's Syrian Policy

The U.S. Navy on April 7, 2017, launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in a strike that inflicted “severe damage” on the target and destroyed at least 20 aircraft, officials said. (U.S. Defense Department photo)
The U.S. Navy on April 7, 2017, launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in a strike that inflicted “severe damage” on the target and destroyed at least 20 aircraft, officials said. (U.S. Defense Department photo)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

The Obama administration resolutely declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had to go, that he was an obstacle to the peaceful resolution of the Syrian Civil War, and that his use of chemical weapons against civilians was a red line whose crossing would precipitate an American response. In the end, however, the Obama White House did nothing.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, having declared through two of its most senior foreign policy spokespeople, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the UN Nicky Haley, that the future of the Assad government was in the hands of the Syrian people; signaled that replacing the Assad government was no longer an American objective and tacitly acknowledged that the Assad government was here to stay.

No sooner had the White House declared a de facto reversal of American policy regarding the Assad government, that President Donald Trump, in response to the Assad government's use of sarin gas, a deadly chemical agent, ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian military air base at Shayrat. The Syrian chemical attack at the village of Khan Shaykhun, in the country's northern Idlib governorate, killed approximately 100 Syrian civilians and injured another 350. This was the first time that the United States had directly attacked Syrian government forces. The policy reversal came with no warning. Significantly, Tillerson's and Haley's previous comments had made no mention, nor had warned the Assad government against the use of chemical weapons.

The missiles were launched from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Pentagon used the euphemistically labeled "de-confliction" communications line to advise the Russian military of the impending attack. Presumably, the Kremlin passed the warning on to the Syrian military. Per the Syrian government, the attack resulted in at least seven fatalities. The Pentagon did not disclose how much advance warning it had given the Russians of the impending attack. The Shayrat air base is a large military facility. Given the low number of fatalities, it must have been sufficient to allow Syrian and Russian personnel at the facility to take shelter.

Significantly, the communication was handled directly by the Pentagon to their Russian counterparts. No attempt was made to advise the Kremlin or Russian President Vladimir Putin separately, even though the attack might have placed Russian lives at risk. Even more significantly, the Assad government made no attempt to turn on its highly vaunted, and recently upgraded, air defense system. The latter is puzzling. Syria's air defense system might have succeeded in shooting down some of the Tomahawks, although a significant number would have gotten through regardless. 

There was no way that Damascus could have known, unless the Pentagon advised beforehand, that U.S. planes were not going to follow up the missile attack. If Damascus was told in advance that an additional air attack was not forthcoming, then it might have made sense to keep the air defense system off. Engaging it would have given the U.S. a valuable opportunity to assess its weakness and vulnerabilities. Critical information, if Washington was to launch an air attack at some point in the future.

Predictably, the Kremlin was quick to brand the attack as an example of "unprovoked American aggression" against a "sovereign government," and to offer their support to their Syrian ally. Russian and Syrian media tried to deflect blame for the chemical attack on one or more of the Syrian rebel groups, claiming that a Syrian government missile had struck a warehouse where the rebels were storing chemical weapons.

Both American and Turkish medical sources were quick to identify the symptoms as either the result of sarin gas or, even worse, a chemical weapons cocktail consisting of sarin gas and other unidentified chemical agents. Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York even suggested that the Syrian and Russian governments were possibly testing new lethal combinations of chemical weapons.

Competing resolutions were quickly introduced at the UN Security Council -- one by Russia, one by the U.S. and its allies and a third by a group of ten nonaligned members of the Security Council. It's unlikely, however, that any action from the UN will be forthcoming. Any substantive action would bring a quick Russian veto.

The use of chemical weapons on civilians by the Assad government was both an unconscionable act of terror against civilians and a war crime. It was also a profoundly stupid act. At this point, it is obvious that the Assad regime is going to survive. The Syrian rebel forces have been ousted from Aleppo and are under attack in Homs and Idib province, their last remaining major stronghold. The U.S. had made it clear that it is prepared to live, however distasteful, with the continuation of the Assad regime.  

Ankara, which had considered an all-out invasion of Syria to depose the Assad regime has been stymied. An all-out war in Syria would be highly unpopular in Turkey. Moreover, given the Russian backing of Damascus, it would require U.S. support for a Turkish invasion, support that Washington has made clear, at least so far, it is not willing to give. Islamic State, which could have posed a threat to the continuation of the Assad government, especially if it had been able to rally the other jihadist groups to support it, is slowly being ground down by a combination of Russian backed Syrian armed forces and the American backed and Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In short, Bashir al-Assad has won. While there continues to be a determined opposition to his regime, it is unlikely that any one group has the wherewithal to oust him. With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad government will slowly but inexorably overcome the Syrian rebels while at the same time, U.S. backed forces will eventually dismantle the Islamic State. Given the above, relying on chemical weapons was an unnecessary provocation of the world community in general and of the U.S. in particular. It might have been understandable, although no less reprehensible, if the Assad regime was on the ropes. Given that they have effectively won the Syrian Civil War, it can only be described as a profoundly stupid act.

The larger question, however, is where does Washington go from here? Observers described the American response as measured. It was more than just a token response, it was enough to do serious damage to the Assad government's air forces, but it stopped short of putting American lives at risk and the forewarning minimized Syrian and potential Russian casualties. How will Washington respond if Damascus again resorts to chemical weapons? Worse still, will the Assad government try to retaliate against the 2,000 odd American troops currently deployed supporting the SDF in Syria? If the Kremlin has anything to say about it, they won't. The last think Russia wants is a direct confrontation with U.S. forces over Syria.

The Kremlin is good at reading the tea leaves in Washington. Given the continued claims that President Donald Trump's election victory was achieved by the surreptitious intervention of the Russian government, Moscow understands well enough that the Trump administration cannot afford to back down if it finds itself in a confrontation with Russia. To do so, would only fuel further allegations of Russian influence in the White House.

What is troubling about the Trump administration's actions, however, is the abrupt manner in which it reversed policy on Syria. Assad's barbarism is not exactly news. There have been persistent, confirmed reports about the Syrian military's use of chemical weapons. The White House's acceptance of the reality of the Syrian situation and the continuation of the Assad regime was objective and pragmatic. It had not been qualified or tempered by any preconditions regarding the use of chemical weapons.

On the battlefield, tactical unpredictability is an advantage. Hitting an opponent when and where they least expect it is usually a winning formula for battlefield success. Strategic unpredictability, however, is an altogether different issue. Governments are wise to signal what issues are important to them and which are not. For superpowers, it is doubly important. It is one thing for a government to keep an opponent guessing about how it will respond; it is an altogether different issue to be unclear about whether they will respond. That's how countries often blunder into wars.

Saddam Hussein gave Washington clear signals that he was contemplating an aggressive action against Kuwait, even if the debate still rages as to whether those signals pointed to a full-scale ground invasion. Washington's ambivalence convinced him that his action would not be opposed. Hence his surprise when Washington expressed shock and outrage to the invasion of Kuwait and promptly assembled an international coalition to reverse it.

The First Gulf War has gone into the history books as a resounding victory for the US and its allies. That it was. But it also reset the trajectory of Middle East politics and in retrospect marked the reemergence of Iranian power in the region. A quarter century later, we are still dealing with the consequences of that war.

Ditto for al-Qaida's attack on September 11 against the twin towers of the World Trade Center. One of the startling revelations from the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was that Osama Bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qaida had concluded, based on the previous responses of the Clinton administration to other acts of terror by al-Qaida, the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombing, the attack on the USS Cole, and the first attack on the World Trade Center, among others, that the U.S. would react with a token response. They were shocked, when suddenly the 101st Airborne began descending from the skies. We will never know whether al Qaida would have persisted with the attack had its leadership understood the consequences. Fifteen years later we are still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.

There is no defense for the barbarism of the Bashar al-Assad regime. There are many who will argue that the U.S. response was a long time coming and that, indeed, had the Obama administration showed more resolve, the scope and intensity of the violence in Syria today might have been curtailed. Nonetheless, making policy on the fly is dangerous. Having now drawn a line in the sand, it is essential that the Trump administration clearly delineate what the U.S. policy to Syria is going to be. That does not mean it needs to publish a list of its tit-for-tat responses, but it clearly needs to define where the red lines are and what actions will precipitate a U.S. military response and which will not. Anything less, risks a confrontation with Moscow and an escalation that neither side needs or wants right now.

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