After the U.S. launched nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria, do we face the threat of the U.S. and Russia being dragged into a great power conflict? Probably not. In fact, the strike makes sense as a strategic signal that the U.S. can use as leverage in moving Russia.
With this strike, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration conveys its willingness to use military force. The strike shows that the U.S. will enforce its red lines and the norms of international law against weapons of mass destruction. It shows that the U.S. will have a role in the Middle East beyond toppling the so-called Islamic State and that the U.S. will oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. It is a sudden but important shift from the Trump campaign’s tone of withdrawal.
The events leading up to yesterday’s strike are well-known. In 2013, the Assad regime crossed former President Barack Obama’s now famous “red line” against chemical weapon attacks. The Obama administration cut a deal with the Assad regime ― sponsored and monitored by Russia ― to remove all chemical weapons from Syria and considered that an end to the threat of Syrian chemical attacks. Those assurances were false, as we saw earlier this week with the horrific attack ― reportedly with sarin, a deadly nerve agent ― that galvanized the Trump administration into conducting the strike.
There were essentially three broad audiences watching the strike with varying responses. First ― the domestic audience in the U.S., which was stunned by the brutality of yet another Syrian chemical attack and will broadly support the president. There will be voices on the far-right counseling that the U.S. should avoid the possibility of further entanglement in the region, and many across the political spectrum who will argue that Congress needs to authorize such actions. But overall, Americans will largely support Trump and his retaliatory strike, a traditional response to such operations.
“This is a sudden but important shift from the Trump campaign's tone of withdrawal.”
The second audience is U.S. allies and friends in the Middle East and around the world. Almost all will applaud this visible show of U.S. strength and leadership ― especially our Sunni Arab friends, who are increasingly nervous about a lack of U.S. resolve in facing Iran. NATO allies are already strongly voicing their approval, especially Turkey, which continues to hope the Assad regime collapses. And even in Asia, our allies and partners will be happy about this use of military force, thinking it bespeaks both leadership and strength in dealing with North Korea.
Finally, there is a third audience of our opponents: Russia, Iran, North Korea, China and Syria itself. Our opponents will seek to minimize the importance of the strike. Admittedly, the strike is not tactically significant but rather intended as a strategic signal. Assad will probably refrain from using chemical weapons again and will be counseled strongly against doing so by Russia. The Kremlin responded angrily, calling the strike an “aggression against a sovereign nation,” but will likely not go further. China urged “restraint” in response, and Iran “strongly condemn[ed]” the strike. North Korea will likely use it as propaganda to portray the U.S. as yet again attacking a small nation and seeking to unlawfully use military force.
On balance, the strike is proportional, tactically sound, professionally executed and sends a reasonably coherent strategic signal. That such a low-risk option was chosen indicates that the more seasoned actors around the president ― Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster ― seem to be providing sensible and mainstream advice. A higher-risk option would have been more extensive airstrikes against other military targets in Syria, for example.
“Tillerson can use this as leverage during his meetings in Moscow next week.”
From the perspective of international and domestic law, while not entirely clear-cut, the strike appears to be within the bounds of legality on the basis of three mutually supportive ideas. The first is the idea of the global community’s “responsibility to protect” endangered populations from murderous regimes. Another is the danger posed to U.S. forces fighting in Syria against ISIS, which opens the door to a preemptive strike argument.
And a third (weaker) argument is that the administration can take military action to protect the homeland ― in this case, hedging against the possibility that the Assad regime might support or equip an anti-U.S. group with its chemical weapons. None of these arguments are perfect, and it would be vastly better to have a United Nations Security Council resolution, but that is impossible while both Russia and China have veto authority.
What happens now? How does the U.S. use this event to create leverage that moves the situation into a better place? This next stage is critical because although the strike may curb Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it is unlikely to stop the bombing of Syrian civilians.
First, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can use this as leverage with Russia during his meetings in Moscow next week. While unlikely to move Putin, Trump should at least put significant pressure on him to restrain Assad and indeed reconsider Russia’s support of him.
“Although the strike may curb Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it is unlikely to stop the bombing of Syrian civilians.”
Second, the U.S. needs to try to create international pressure to reinvigorate the peace process that collapsed after the U.S. election. While this is a low-probability path, it needs to be pursued vigorously. In this regard, the Trump administration should reach back to the Balkan conflict of the 1990s and think carefully about whether there is a solution that involves a partition of Syria, much as the former Yugoslavia was broken into various smaller nations, which eventually lead to a reduction in violence.
Third, the U.S. should be planning for further kinetic activity ― airstrikes, special forces missions ― as well as offensive cyber options. If Syria continues to violate basic norms of international law, Trump will have to back up the actions he has taken thus far.
And finally, the U.S. should reenergize U.S. efforts to catalyze the moderate Syrian opposition. That effort has become frustrating. But perhaps, in concert with Turkey, it can provide a way forward.
The bottom line is that the strike will do more good than harm. It is a relatively close call ― legally, operationally and strategically. The odds of being dragged into a larger war in the region (again) and into a potential great power conflict with Russia are low ― but not negligible. The Trump administration needs to build on the airstrike in a cautious, thoughtful way, and follow up with the far trickier salvo of creative diplomacy and political maneuvering.