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