Following the Syrian regime’s suspected use of chlorine to kill dozens in Douma basement, the international community, led by the United States, is poised to launch reprisal strikes against regime targets. President Donald Trump has worked diligently to organise a joint military response with America’s two closest allies, the United Kingdom and France. However, the president this morning telegraphed in a tweet military intent and directly challenged Russia, a hostile combatant in the Syrian battle space.
The tweet may have made Donald Trump feel good about himself, but it is totally incongruous not just with military planning, but also a risk averse Pentagon. The latter is tasked with figuring how to respond to a chemical weapons attack without risking coalition air operations in Syria’s northeast and preventing unintended escalation with the Russian military.
Just one year ago, the United States launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles, aimed at Shayrat Airbase, the site from which Syrian regime aircraft departed en route to their targets in Khan Sheikhun, an opposition-held city. The regime had recently killed dozens with the sarin nerve agent, and the strikes of April 2017 were intended to punish the Syrian regime for its violation of international norms prohibiting chemical weapons use, as well as detering the future use of such weapons. Yet the strikes accomplished neither goal. The Syrian regime has continued to use weaponised chlorine to kill innocents and combatants. According to the United Nations Panel of Experts, it is also importing material from North Korea, a sign that it is trying to rebuild its capability to manufacture chemical weapons. This revelation clearly demonstrates that previous diplomatic efforts, led by the Obama administration, to compel Bashar al Assad to give up on chemical weapons failed.
Since Assad has successfully resisted attempts to make him give up chemical weapons, the question is how to manage a long-term, Syria-specific, counter-proliferation challenge. If the confrontation was a binary one, in which the US and its allies stood on one side, and the regime on the other, the strategy would be straightforward. The US would use the threat of escalating levels of force to deter negative behaviour. However, the Syrian civil war is a multi-sided conflict that involves a more heavyweight adversary – Russia. President Vladimir Putin has signalled his intention that his ally, Assad, defeats those opposed to his rule. Moscow is therefore adamantly opposed to strikes that could threaten regime stability.
Meanwhile, the US-led coalition, too, has been at war in Syria, in this case to quash Islamic State, a terror group linked to attacks through Europe and the Middle East. To do so, the coalition embedded a small number of special operations forces which operated alongside a Kurdish-led force, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The coalition’s war has been successful. Today, the SDF now controls almost all of northeast Syria. Just opposite it, on the Euphrates River, the regime controls much of the Syrian desert. The frontline extends for close to 200km. The Kurdish-led forces are dependent on coalition air support to deter regime aggression.
Herein lies the major complicating factor. During and after a forthcoming attack, the United States and its allies will still have troops on the ground, based at small and vulnerable bases in Syria’s northeast. One year ago, out of an abundance of caution, the coalition withdrew manned aircraft from Syria before the attack on Shayrat air base. It is safe to assume that the coalition will take similar steps this time around. And so, while President Trump boasts on Twitter about superior American weaponry, the reality of the situation on the ground is far more complicated.
The US and Russia, albeit at times with some discomfort, have managed to de-conflict air operations in eastern Syria. This has been a political choice. The Syrian regime and, or, Russian military operate surface-to-air missile sites in eastern Syria and Russian Su-34 Flankers often fly in the area. Russia could harass future flight operations in the northeast in retaliation for strikes.
The forthcoming strike is not risk free, and boasts on Twitter don’t actually help. In fact, doing so signals that the attack will involve missiles, presumably air and sea-launched cruise missiles, aimed at regime-held targets. The US military is a cautious organisation, particularly when involved in a war of choice, where the political costs of a downed pilot outweigh many of the intended benefits from a small-scale strike. The planners will carefully select targets to minimise the risk of killing Russian military personnel, and assign weapons that mitigate (to the extent possible) risks to civilians.
However, in a multi-sided war, where the US and its allies have troops on the ground and a separate war to fight, the challenges will come after this wave of airstrikes ends. The Russians and the Syrian regime will still be in power. They may be able to harass and challenge US and allied interests in ways that can’t be captured in 280 characters or less. Moscow will soon get the message: the West can put a cruise missile anywhere it likes in Syria. The question, then, is what the Russia and the Syrian regime will choose to do about it.
Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.