U.S. Air Strikes against Syria: Strong Signal or Dangerous Miscalculation?

Dr. Andrew Gawthorpe casts his doubts on the effect of U.S. missile strikes into Syria.

For longtime observers of the Syrian Civil War and the West’s impotent response to it, the events of the last few days felt like déjà vu – almost.  In 2013,  U.S. President Barack Obama came close to ordering air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government killed 1,400 people (estimates vary from 281 to 1,729, Ed.) in a Damascus suburb.  Like many commentators – even those who had supported some form of Western intervention in Syria – I wrote a column at the time arguing that a one-off strike would be a mistake which would fail to make any difference in the conflict, and could actually prolong and deepen it.  To our collective relief, Obama called off the strike in the face of political opposition.

Fast forward nearly four years and I, like many people, was surprised when President Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory air strike against the Syrian air base whose units carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Idlib governorate.  Surprised not just because Trump had so vehemently and repeatedly stated that the U.S. should not intervene in the Syrian Civil War, but also because the reasons for doing so in this fashion had become even weaker in the years since Obama’s aborted mission.

The Trump administration presented its actions as a simple response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.  The reasoning seemed to be that by punishing the regime through strikes on one of its airbases, it would understand that the U.S. is serious about opposing the use of such weapons and be deterred from launching a chemical attack in the future.  Other regimes which possess weapons of mass destruction would receive the same message.

That all sounds perfectly logical.  But dig a little deeper and you see the flaws in the U.S. position.  Firstly, the damage done to the Assad regime’s military capabilities by the barrage of 59 cruise missiles was negligible.  Experts think that it took out as many Syrian aircraft as the regime loses in the average year of fighting in the war – significant but not game-changing.  As for the airbase itself, Syrian jets were taking off from it within 36 hours of the American strike.  Given how a regime can benefit from striking a heroic pose in the face of American attacks, such a pinprick strike isn’t necessarily going to deter the use of chemical weapons in the future.

One of the reasons damage at the Al-Shayrat airbase was so low was because Washington gave Syria’s ally Russia advance notice of the attack.  This made perfect sense, because otherwise U.S. missiles might have hit and killed Russian military personnel, potentially touching off a severe crisis.  But this also underlines the extent to which U.S. freedom of action in Syria is now limited by Russia.  If the Trump administration did want to step up its attacks on the Syrian government or even bring about regime change, it would find itself pitched against the sophisticated air defense systems with which Russia has dotted Syria’s western coast.

Perhaps more importantly, the increased distrust between the U.S. and Russia which has resulted from the Al-Shayrat strike imperils U.S. air operations against ISIS, whose global reach was underlined by two bombings in Egypt over the weekend.  With Russia threatening to cut off its already limited cooperation with the U.S. over the skies of Syria and even to hang up on the military hotline used to avoid clashes between the two countries in the air, Washington is already forced to adopt a more cautious approach in its campaign against ISIS.  Over the weekend, as the smoke cleared at Al-Shayrat, sorties against ISIS were down to extreme lows.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the idea that Trump’s air strike establishes U.S. credibility and intent to act against regimes who use chemical weapons is that the same strike also underscores the impression that Trump has no coherent or fixed ideas about anything.  For years before he was a candidate and then during the campaign, he vehemently opposed U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War and specifically a U.S. strike in almost identical circumstances in 2013.  Apparently, all it took to change his mind were the horrendous photos of dying children on cable news.  We all share his distaste, and this has led some commentators to embrace his action.  But credibility relies in turn on predictability, and Trump’s actions promote a sense of neither.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War will grind on and remain as intractable as ever.  Tens and even hundreds of thousands will continue to die in conventional massacres and chlorine gas attacks which fall below the threshold for provoking a U.S. military response.  The U.S. still lacks any coherent strategy towards the conflict and will remain a marginal actor in determining the outcome.

Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States, President George W. Bush famously opined about the importance of thinking through his military response. “When I take action,” he said, “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”  If the U.S. does intend to plunge deeper into Syria’s morass, President Trump should think through this remark first.  After all, it is couched in terms even he ought to be able to understand.

Dr. Andrew Gawthorpe is lecturer in Contemporary Military History and Security Studies at Leiden University.

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery