Assessing The Syrian Airstrike

We didn’t really make much of a dent in the total assets of the Syrian air force.
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MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Late last week, President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield, in an escalation of the United States’ participation in the Syrian civil war. While it’s still too early to come to a definitive conclusion about the effect this airstrike had ― in either the military situation, the foreign policy of the Trump administration, or the raw domestic politics involved, a few preliminary assessments can now be made.

Military effect

The U.S. Navy launched 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian airfield, of which 58 successfully hit their targets (one malfunctioned on launch). That sounds like a lot of firepower, but to the American military, this was nothing more than a “pinprick” attack.

Cruise missiles have the benefit of not putting any American lives at risk during the attack itself, of course. Launching such missiles from hundreds of miles away means there is zero risk to American military pilots or troops, because neither participated in the attack. The drawback to cruise missiles, as opposed to a more traditional bombing raid, is that they have a limited payload. The warheads on such missiles only weigh 1,000 pounds, which is half of what standard bombs can deliver. Cruise missiles are also rather expensive, when compared to the price of fuel for fighter jets and bombers. So a massive bombing raid would likely have caused more damage to the airfield, but at a much higher risk to American military personnel.

The missile raid did achieve one military objective, from all reports. There were no Russian troops killed or injured in the attack, which isn’t too surprising since we warned them in advance to stay away from the areas of the airfield we were targeting.

Beyond not killing Russians, the military effectiveness of the raid is a rather mixed picture. The Pentagon wasn’t openly bragging about how many Syrian aircraft had been taken out of commission, which is a good indicator that we didn’t really make much of a dent in the total assets of the Syrian air force. In fact, most of the damage assessment that was released to the public came from the Russians ― hastily-shot video from the day after. This showed (to state the obvious) what the Russians and Syrians wanted the world to see, so it quite likely didn’t tell the whole story. Propaganda always has to be seen skeptically, no matter who it comes from, after all. The Russian footage was shot with an eye towards minimizing the world’s perception of the damage, in other words.

We did not attempt to “crater the runways,” which quite likely would have taken a whole lot more cruise missiles than were used in the raid. This allowed the Syrians to release videos of takeoffs and landings from the airfield within roughly a day of the raid. This was also propaganda, but without targeting the runways it was probably inevitable.

What we did apparently target instead were the support facilities ― fuel dumps, repair facilities, and the like. Bunkers which may have held chemical weapons were not targeted because it might have dispersed the chemicals to the surrounding civilian population. None of this damage was really highlighted in the Syrian or Russian films released afterwards, but if we did destroy enough of the support facilities it will mean the airfield becomes a lot less useful until repairs are completed.

All of this shows why this is being called a “pinprick” attack. General destruction of the entire airfield ― enough to put it out of commission for months or even years ― was not one of the mission’s objectives. If it had been, we would have risked killing Russian military members and being blamed for a giant cloud of nerve gas released as a result of the attack. But the damage done was quite likely more serious than the Russians and the Syrians presented in their propaganda videos.

Foreign policy effect

The effect on the Trump administration’s foreign policy is pretty hard to judge, at least at the moment. Trying to figure out Trump’s foreign policy is an exercise that might be labeled: “Who do you believe?” Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements border on the incoherent, at least when measured by what he promised it would be while campaigning. But digging deeper doesn’t really add much clarity at all, because top Trump advisors have been pretty contradictory as well.

During the campaign, Trump promised an “America First” outlook to the world. This would mean avoiding getting entangled in the Syrian civil war, for one ― and Trump made a lot of political hay over the fact that his outlook was so different than the other Republicans’, and (later) Hillary Clinton’s. Of course, at the same time Trump was promising to “bomb the (expletive)” out of the Islamic State, which also got big cheers from the crowds. So it’s not that surprising that even though Trump absolutely reversed his position by conducting the raid, so far most of his supporters don’t seem to mind the contradiction.

Just a week before the raid was launched, a major shift in American foreign policy towards Syria was rolled out. We were no longer concerned with whether or not Bashar Al Assad stayed in power or not, instead that would be “up to the Syrian people.” This pronouncement ― by multiple Trump senior advisors ― was met with astonishment and incredulity among hawks in the Republican Party. John McCain and Lindsey Graham both had some pretty scathing things to say about it (as both are wont to do, at times).

Then the chemical attack happened. Trump was obviously affected by how it was portrayed on cable television, which led to a complete reversal in America’s Syrian policy. The raid was hastily assembled and launched in retaliation.

This kind of haste may make sense politically (more on that in a moment), but in terms of foreign policy it left all kinds of questions unanswered. Where was the proof that the Assad government was behind the attack? Where was the presentation to the United Nations, justifying an American response? There wasn’t time for any of that sort of thing, obviously. This led to some grumbling from Congress, who wasn’t consulted, and some further international grumbling, since there was no iron-clad case for military action under international law and treaties.

Since then, there hasn’t been much in the way of clarity from the White House, either. Even watching U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the Sunday morning political this weekend only showed that the Trump foreign policy apparatus doesn’t exactly speak with one voice on much of anything.

Are we now committed to removing Assad from power? Well, it depends on who you listen to and how you parse their statements. Will the focus of the American military effort in Syria change? It’s hard to tell. Mostly, the picture Haley and Tillerson were projecting was that this was a one-off, stand-alone military response to a single event. Both Tillerson and Haley have noticeably backed away from the “Syrian people will decide whether Assad stays” reasoning they were using previously, but without replacing it with much in the way of any new and cohesive Syrian policy.

Political effect

Speaking just in terms of American domestic politics, Nikki Haley emerged stronger, Donald Trump emerged slightly stronger, and Rex Tillerson emerged.

OK, I admit, I couldn’t resist that one. Taking them in reverse order, Tillerson up to this point has been almost a non-entity both on the world stage and in the American media. This was by design, not by accident. Tillerson not only has been showing utter disdain for the media up to this point (not holding regular State Department media briefings at all, really), but he’s also been institutionally aloof from his own department. Most senior staff at the State Department either hasn’t been hired or has actively been fired since Tillerson took over. Even the ones that do still exist don’t have much in the way of access to him. Trump’s first budget request also showed enormous disdain for the State Department, in proposing its budget be slashed by roughly a third. Tillerson emerged from this cocoon on Sunday, and gave his first real media interviews since he’s been on the job. His upcoming trip to Russia will be closely watched, so it’s likely he won’t be able to hide in the shadows as much, in the near future.

As far as politics goes, it is still too early to tell whether Trump will get much of a polling bump from the Syrian raid. He did appear decisive in launching the raid so quickly, you have to at least give him that. But so far, he’s only up a couple of job approval points. The traditional “rally ‘round the president” effect (which usually happens whenever America launches a military attack) seems to have worked for him in a minor way, but it remains to be seen how big a bump he’ll get ― and how long it’ll last. Public opinion takes time to gel, and then further time is taken conducting the polls and interpreting the data. So we won’t really be able to see how much political benefit Trump reaps until the end of this week, at the earliest. Also, Trump has created so many distractions as president that it’s really hard to tell how long any bump will last ― will the American public even remember the raid in two or three weeks, with everything else that’s going on? It’s an open question.

Nikki Haley may have gained the biggest political boost of anyone over the past few days. Since Haley works in New York, she’s got some physical distance from the Trump White House (and all its baggage), and she seems content to chart her own political course, almost independently of what the president or the White House is saying. She showed this independence fairly early on, but with the attention the Syrian raid drew she now seems like the strongest voice on foreign policy in the entire Trump administration (even including Trump himself). Haley is reportedly considering a future run at the presidency herself, so many see her as “checking the box” on foreign policy experience now in preparation for such a run (since governors have limited opportunities to gain such experience).

There were two other political effects from the raid worth noting. The first is that the Trump administration has at least partially changed the media narrative of their Russian ties. All the drip-drip-drip revelations of the unfolding Russian investigations were painting a pretty ugly picture up to this point ― one of Trump and his team being nothing short of Russian stooges, in essence. It’s harder to paint that picture now that Trump has approved an attack on Russia’s ally Syria.

I should mention that at the present time I refuse to draw any further conclusions about the shift in such perceptions. There is a lot of theorizing (on both the left and the right) as to what really could have been going on to convince Trump to launch such an attack. So far, though, we simply don’t have enough information to leap to any nefarious conclusions. If there was some sort of grand scheme hidden in the Syrian attack, political or otherwise, time will probably tell us what really happened. Since the Trump White House seems to leak like a poorly-functioning sieve, this likely won’t take all that long to occur. For now, I’m only focusing on the short-term effects the raid has so far had.

The last political effect worth mentioning is the utter hypocrisy emanating from just about every Republican member of Congress. They are currently bending over backwards in an attempt to explain why Trump’s raid was in any way different than what Barack Obama proposed to them four years ago. Back then, they universally derided the idea of pinprick attacks in response to chemical weapons (Obama’s plan for such an attack was reportedly a lot more robust than what Trump just accomplished, in fact). Obama gave Congress a chance to weigh in, and they refused to do so, to their shame (both Republican and Democratic shame, I hasten to point out). Now, Republicans can’t say enough good things about the idea of pinprick attacks on Syria, of course. Such nakedly partisan hypocrisy is almost to be expected, but that doesn’t make it any less notable when it happens, of course.

Chris Weigant

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