Most of this post, for reasons that I assume are clear, is going to deal with the ongoing fallout from last night’s/this morning’s US missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base. I’ll have a handful of updates from other parts of the world tacked on at the end. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll try to take it in chunks.
WHAT DID THE STRIKE ACCOMPLISH?
It seems contradictory to say that this strike was both a potentially dangerous escalation and relatively insignificant–I’ve been giving myself cognitive dissonance all day trying to keep both of these thoughts in my head. But it’s true once you separate strategy from tactics. Strategically, this is a clear 180 shift in the administration’s Syria policy from where we were literally at the start of this week–with regime change openly being discounted as an American aim–to where we are now–with “Assad Must Go” practically being spray painted on a billboard outside the White House. It’s a big deal, and if there’s more to come then it will be an even bigger deal.
Tactically though, this strike accomplished…what, exactly? One-off airstrikes don’t achieve much as a rule, and in fact they can have the effect of extending and intensifying conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Russian and Syrian TV footage purporting to show the damage caused at Shayrat by this particular strike shows…not much damage, to be honest. Obviously these sources would have a clear interest in downplaying the results of the strike, but I think the fact that Assad’s air force was able to use the base less than one full day after the strike shows how little damage must have been done. And even if the Shayrat air base had been completely wiped out, somehow rendered irreparable, it would have made Assad’s air campaign a bit more difficult, but not much more than that. It’s been hard to get a clear casualty figure–Syrian media says 16 were killed, most of them civilians in the villages surrounding the base, but it might be wise to wait for some confirmation before accepting Syrian state media’s figures in this case.
From a tangible perspective then, if this is it it’s not much. So what about the intangible? Did Donald Trump “make his point” and “send a message” to Assad about the use of chemical weapons? Maybe. I guess we won’t know unless and until Assad tries to use sarin again, right? Let’s assume he did though; so what? International norms on chemical weapons are important, sure, but the “message” Assad is likely to receive is “go back to killing people with conventional weapons,” which, the numbers don’t lie, he’s been doing with frightening aplomb (he’s already resumed bombing Khan Shaykhun, in case you were wondering). And to be honest, this strike was so limited that there’s a possibility Assad says “this is it? seriously?” and figures he’ll be able to get away with using sarin again at some point.
IS THIS IT?
What happens now? Is the United States now in the Syria regime change business? Rex Tillerson pretty much said no. Nikki Haley says maybe. Donald Trump says…check with me after tomorrow morning’s “Fox & Friends,” probably. The fact that nobody, including people within the administration, seems to know is…well, I’ll get to that, but it’s not good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is supposed to be it, which seems right now to be the case. Is that even possible? Even if the Trump administration wants to go back to the way things were five days ago, when America’s only consideration in Syria was the fight against ISIS, can it? Doesn’t the US now, as Robert Hunter puts it, “own Syria,” or at least a part of it? Having just bombed one of Assad’s bases in part to chase that “American credibility” hit every administration craves, is Trump going to sit back now while Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, resumes winning the war? The prospect is not a cheery one.
On the other hand, if the administration has no plan to follow this strike up with…something (not necessarily military), then what was the point? Natsec types are thrilled that we made some missiles blow up, but these are people who still, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that public displays of America’s massive, throbbing…military might are good in and of themselves, no further accomplishment needed. They should all be thoroughly discredited by now, but this is America, so of course they’re not.
“What happens now” also applies to, and will be dictated by, what Russia does next. I don’t mean in terms of the broader US-Russia relationship, or the dreams of a grand US-Russia reset, which were already falling apart before this strike. I’m talking about how Russia is going to respond in Syria. They don’t have cause to respond that harshly–Washington warned Moscow in time to get its people off the base (so much for Trump’s patented surprise attack, I guess), so they suffered no direct losses. Nor do the Russians have much moral ground on which to stand here, considering it was under Russian auspices that Assad insisted he’d destroyed all his chemical weapons as of 2015, and meanwhile there were Russians working at the fucking air base from which Tuesday’s sarin strike was launched. And, look, there’s no chance Russia is going to start a war with the United States over Shayrat air base in Syria. The arguments against American intervention against Assad never assumed that Russia would start World War III over Bashar al-Assad. Rather, they reflected concerns that when you put great powers in close proximity working at cross purposes, historically shit happens and things can spiral out of control.
But there are things Russia can do in Syria to make life harder on the United States that don’t approach going to war. In fact, they already did one today, shutting down the back channel that US and Russian forces were using to keep their aircraft from getting too close or making moves that could be perceived as threatening. This is not good. By itself this could be enough to seriously curtail America’s ability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to (eventually) take Raqqa. On the other hand, that’s all Russia has done. There have been some angry Russian statements and denouncements at the UN, but that’s perfunctory. We’ll obviously see if there’s any more to come, but for now that’s a pretty muted response, and you may even see the deconfliction channel reopened after a couple of days.
THE “WHY” DOESN’T MATTER
I’ve been on the “why” kick since Bashar al-Assad’s air force apparently dropped sarin gas on the town of Khan Shaykhun on Tuesday. This is not because I doubt Assad’s forces actually carried out the strike or I think there could be some merit to Russian claims that the gas came from a rebel stockpile that Syrian strikes hit. There’s a preponderance of circumstantial, witness, and scientific evidence that makes any other explanation for what happened pretty unlikely (also the Israelis claim to have proof that Assad was personally responsible, but grain of salt here). I’d like to know why he would do such a thing, to invite an international response in service of a very insignificant military objective at a time when he’s clearly winning the civil war, both because I like to try to make sense of things that don’t make sense to me and because, if we’re going to go to war beyond a single strike, then the “why” might be important.
So far this is the only piece I’ve seen entirely dedicated to analyzing why Assad would have done it…only it’s not really analysis so much as it’s speculation. He wanted to demoralize the rebels and test the Western response, and thought he could get away with it? Maybe. That seems like a pretty unimportant objective (how much more demoralized can the opposition get after Aleppo?) to take this kind of risk. It’s possible, certainly, but I don’t feel like it’s a great answer. Is Andrew Tabler right that Assad opted for chemical weapons because he’s started losing ground again around Hama and he doesn’t have the manpower to do anything about it? It’s possible…but Assad knows that conventional airstrikes can rebalance that equation pretty well without generating a huge outcry, and anyway if your concern is the loss of territory why not gas the front line fighters who are taking it from you? Why gas a village behind the line?
Maybe there is no great answer. People do stupid shit all the time, authoritarian dictators included (and often especially). But at this point I’m not sure the “why” really matters anymore anyway. It’s done, America responded, and maybe that’s going to be the end of it. If so, then “why” Assad did it can remain a mystery.
THE LEGALITY DOESN’T MATTER, PRACTICALLY SPEAKING
There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled about whether this strike was legal under US and/or international law. I am no lawyer, but I’m persuaded that under just about any commonsense reading of the law, or even under a strict original intent reading of the Constitution, the answer is that it wasn’t. But it doesn’t matter, first because presidential legal counsels have gotten pretty good at making this stuff up as they go along, and second because nobody in Congress, aside from a handful of individuals, would dare challenge Donald Trump, or any other president, on something like this.
Congress has been steadily surrendering its war powers to the president for decades because for the most part, representatives and senators don’t want them. They don’t want their fingerprints on a military act that goes wrong. Look at what happened last night: a morbidly hilarious number of Republicans who abjectly refused to consider voting on an authorization to strike Syria under very similar circumstances after the Ghouta incident in 2013 were tripping over themselves in their rush to praise Trump for what he did. Why the discrepancy? Sure, Democrat in the White House vs. Republican in the White House, but the other issue is that what these folks want is for the president to act unilaterally so that they can issue a firm statement after the fact. They want no parts of authorizing an action before it happens. That’s too politically risky.
If there’s going to be more to this than just the one missile strike, then I think it will be impossible for Congress not to provide Trump with the legal authorization to do whatever it is he wants to do. But for now they’re going to be happy to cheerlead and do nothing else. Don’t misunderstand me–I think the unchecked growth of executive war powers is a huge problem, and in principle the legality of an action like this is incredibly consequential. But absent any serious congressional move to challenge the president’s authority, there’s no practical way to actually make it matter.
WHAT KIND OF PRESIDENT HAVE WE ELECTED?
There is no getting around the fact that Trump completely changed his policy toward Assad in the space of a couple of days because he saw TV footage that bothered him. If you’re a dingbat at the New York Times, this is how you describe that:
That’s really touching. Although, another way to describe that same phenomenon is that the man who controls the most destructive military arsenal that has ever been assembled in all of human history is apparently prone to wild, erratic, massive shifts in policy based on something he sees on television. This same man who talked solemnly about those poor Syrian babies in the Rose Garden two days ago said a year ago that he would “look Syrian children in the face and say they can’t come” into the US. And then he tried twice to enact executive orders to keep them out. Whatever the merits or demerits of this particular intervention, it is exceedingly troubling that we’re being led by a man whose view of the world is this easily swayed. It suggests he’ll be susceptible to more direct coercion, like, just hypothetically mind you, if every media and political type who had spent the last two years ripping him apart was suddenly lining up to kiss his ass just because he’d launched a bunch of missiles at a military base in the Middle East. I’d hate to think what an emotional guy who loves being flattered might take away from something like that.
OK, I think that’s enough on Syria for one night. Moving on, briefly:
The other big story today happened in Stockholm, where a man drove a truck into a crowded market this afternoon, killing at least four people and injuring 15. Swedish authorities have already determined that this was a terrorist attack, and it continues the trend, going back at least to last summer, of vehicular attacks in Europe, the US, and Israel. Two people have been arrested in connection with the attack but I don’t know any more than that, like whether either of them was the actual driver (who got away, at least initially).
Over the past several days, ISIS has killed scores of civilians caught trying to flee Mosul and has hung their bodies from electricity poles as a message to others trying to escape. Reports from Iraqi Kurdistan say that as many as 140 people were killed by the terrorist/insurgent group just between Monday and Tuesday of this week.
Is it possible that one of the side effects of the Syria strike, coming as it did right smack in the middle of President Trump’s big Mar-a-Lago soiree, could be that China will now have to Take America Seriously? Yeah, sure, I guess. I loathe these kinds of American Credibility arguments because they only come up when there’s a choice whether or not to bomb something and always as an argument in favor of bombing. The only way our elites imagine that America can be credible is if we’re blowing something up.
President Adama Barrow’s party won 31 of the 53 seats in the Gambian parliament in yesterday’s election. As president, Barrow gets to appoint five additional seats including the parliament speaker, so he’ll be assured of a substantial governing majority.
AFP has more on that South Sudanese army attack on the border town of Pajok that took place earlier this week. So far, according to the UN, over 6000 refugees have fled the attack across the border into Uganda, and more are reportedly still trying to get across:
“Refugees told the UNHCR team on the ground in Lamwo terrifying stories of violence and abuse against civilians. Many have witnessed their loved ones shot dead or slaughtered like animals,” Rocco Nuri, UNHCR spokesman, told AFP news agency.
“Families fled in all directions. Those unable to run were reportedly shot dead, including the elderly and people with disabilities.”
A local pastor who fled Parjok on Wednesday, and asked not to be named, said soldiers had entered the town in tanks “and suddenly we saw shooting and we just had to run.”
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
President Joseph Kabila named opposition politician Bruno Tshibala as his new prime minister today. The previous PM, Samy Badibanga, stepped down on Thursday when Kabila announced his intention to appoint someone from the opposition to the job, in accordance with the power-sharing deal he and the opposition reached on December 31. In fact, Tshibala’s appointment violates the deal because the opposition was supposed to select a PM from among its ranks, but Kabila went ahead and picked on himself. At a time when people are seriously beginning to doubt Kabila’s commitment to the other, more important, part of the December 31 deal–that he will hold a presidential election this year and then step down afterward–this is only going to inflame tensions.
An estimated 60,000 people gathered in cities across South Africa today to demand that President Jacob Zuma resign in the wake of a cabinet reshuffle that has cratered the country’s credit rating and currency. Zuma’s base is largely in the country’s rural areas, so you may not want to read too much into this display of unhappiness.
Greek Cypriots today amended a law requiring public schools to commemorate the country’s 1950 referendum on union with Greece, giving the education minister discretion over whether or not to hold the commemorations. This is the concession needed to give the Turkish Cypriots a reason to come back to the negotiating table over reunification, which they’ve agreed to do on April 11.
President Hashim Thaçi announced today that he’s suspending a plan to develop his security forces into a full-fledged army. That plan was opposed by Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority and by Serbia itself, which still regards Kosovo as a breakaway region–oh, and also the United States and NATO, who would prefer the Balkans not suddenly go up in flames again. They insist that the formation of a Kosovo army has to be done via a constitutional amendment, which would require the support of a number of Serb legislators.
A representative of the Basque separatist group ETA says that it has handed over all its weapons and given French authorities the location of its arms stashes, apparently fulfilling its pledge to disarm by Saturday. The group has offered to disband completely in exchange for the release of its members who have been imprisoned and amnesty for those who haven’t, but there seems to be no appetite in either Spain or France for such a deal.
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