Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Khan Sheikhoun, Shayrat Air Base, and What Next?
Khan Sheikhoun, Shayrat Air Base, and What Next?

Khan Sheikhoun, Shayrat Air Base, and What Next?


By now the world knows that U.S. military forces for the first time since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011 have attacked regime targets. Plenty of the basic facts are known about what transpired about 18 hours ago, but a few important ones are not—at least not in the public domain.

For example, we have only a very general Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) report. This matters because Tomahawk cruise missiles are very accurate if “lite” weapons. Knowing what the four dozen or so missiles hit and missed, deliberately and otherwise, could tell us a lot about why the President, presumably with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ guidance and concurrence, chose the lesser of three options presented at what has been described as a meeting of considerable length. That, in turn, could tell us if the intention ultimately is to coerce the Russians into coercing the Syrians to stop doing monstrous things to their own people, and possibly coercing them to support a compromise political settlement to the war; or if it’s just an Eff-You gesture designed only to relieve the sudden pressure of moral unction that unexpectedly came upon our new Commander-in Chief—who seemed to lurch from coldblooded Randian to “Godtalk” invoker of the American Civil Religion in the wink of an eye. In other words, knowing more about the target set would tell us whether there is any political strategy attached to the use of force, or not. Probably not.

Additionally, we do not know if other U.S. forces are flowing to theater, and which forces they may be—so we don’t know if yesterday evening’s strike was intended to be a one-off or the start of a larger campaign. Careful: It could be both a one-off designed to send a message but not to reshape policy unless some other actor—the Syrian regime, the Russian regime, even the Iranian regime—acts in such a way as to “inspire” further U.S. kinetic exercises. But since that sort of response is entirely possible—most obviously, if Assad uses sarin again and dares us to escalate to stop him, accepting much more risk in the process—we had better be prepared for the move after next if there is one. If we are not preparing, we make that move more likely, and exacerbates the potential vulnerability the strike has set in motion.

Very much related, we now know that a Russian warship has moved toward U.S. Navy forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. That is normal. Adult militaries scout and monitor each other’s protocols just like serious athletes scout and study their rivals before the game. (In this case, not only U.S., Russian, and perhaps Syrian and Iranian militaries are trying to listen and learn, but so most likely are Israeli and Turkish militaries.)

But sometimes monitoring behavior can become aggressive and inspire concerns about fleet defense, for creating an air of uncertainty is often a tempting gaming tactic at a moment like this. But it can backfire if uncertainty produces bravado or panic—which can amount to more or less the same thing. It’s happened before, many times. It would be not so good, for example, if the U.S. Navy were to shoot down a Russian warplane buzzing too close to our intel ship that is sailing along with the USS Ross and the USS Porter. (I don’t know its name, but I’m pretty sure there is one nearby.)

There is plenty more we don’t yet know, but of an entirely different order. Most of us remember the bizarre sequence of events back in 2013 when, after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on unarmed civilians President Obama prepared a strike and then backed off, allowing the Russians to fish him out of the drink with a false promise about ridding Syria of all its chemical munitions. The Syrian declaration was false, the Russians knew it was false (for the Soviets had supplied most of the stuff and the expertise regarding how to use it, and were well aware of what the Syrians really had by way of chemical precursors and weapons), and they made a safe bet that an avariciously political but very rise-averse Obama administration would be willing to take the declaration at face value so as to crow about its own success.

The process to get there, recall, was truly wild: The decision system worked perfectly until the President changed his mind after a garden walk with one of his political aides, not consulting his Secretaries of State and Defense and wrongfooting his own National Security Advisor as she was about to make a speech supporting the military strikes. Until the sarin settled over Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, some of Obama’s staunchest defenders were still claiming that all of Syria’s chemical arsenal had been removed without a shot being fired, completely oblivious to the logic and mounting evidence that they had in fact been snookered.

Remember all that? Well, how does what has now happened in this new administration differ? Note that just a few days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had said that dealing with Bashar al-Assad and his merry band of mass murderers was “not a priority.” So, hearing that, Assad thinks, reasonably enough, “Well, I can do what I like now,” and the Russians say “amen.” So Assad proceeds to terrorize a corner of Idlib province, the obvious next regime target after the fall of Aleppo. The aim? Same as before: ethnically cleanse to the extent possible a stronghold of Sunni Arabs and send them into refugee columns headed ultimately for Europe, the better to serve a host of Russian interests in the process.

But then suddenly the Americans do a volte face: They change their minds and attack with cruise missiles. They must have realized in Damascus just how the North Koreans felt in June 1950, just weeks after Dean Acheson drew his infamous line putting South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter for mainland Asia: They take high U.S. officials at their word, only to find that our word won’t stand against the first rush of righteous indignation we summon.

That’s not all. Apparently, if one can believe the news, the President worked mainly through General Mattis and, one supposed, General McMaster because he’s just down the hall. It’s not clear if Secretary Tillerson knew about the decision until after it was taken. We apparently warned the Russians to stay clear through the deconfliction channel before the strike, and with Tillerson headed off to Moscow in a few days, one would think he would have been part of that judgment. But it’s not at all clear that he was.

So what is one to make of an administration that seems just as prone to monkey-in-the-machine-room process antics as its predecessor, and that also chose the least risky option under the circumstances?

Yes, there is a difference between old and new administrations—of course. Trump acted quickly; Obama deliberated over such matters endlessly. Trump comes across more like Henry IV, Obama more like Hamlet, if you like a Shakespearean metaphor. And the circumstances have changed: This second time around with Assad and his chemicals, there was really no way to duck a reckoning. As many have pointed out—both Democrats who rued Obama’s passivity in the past as well as Republican supporters of Trump right now—if the U.S. government had again failed to act in the face a raw violation of international norms and treaty obligations, then the message to bad actors everywhere would have been, in essence, “Do as you please to anyone you please to do it to, because no one in the civilized world will lift a finger to stop you.”

As things stand, however, the administration chose the least aggressive, most risk-averse military option put before it, so it is not clear how loud and strong a message it has sent. That is why a new cycle of taunt and repercussion may ensue, with unpredictable consequences. But what were the other two options the President heard from his military advisers?

I don’t know, of course, nor does anyone not privy to the discussions. But I can guess. One, now favored aloud by Senators McCain and Graham, would be to smash the Syrian Air Force in its entirety, so that no more attacks of the sort we saw this past Tuesday can again be mounted. That would force the Russians to do these kinds of crimes directly, something they may not be willing to do; if they were willing, it would add mass murder to their well-practiced mendacity, which would at the least have a clarifying purpose, not least in the President’s own peculiar head.

But to achieve that aim would require aircraft, not cruise missiles. We would have to suppress Syrian air defenses first to do that, and we might find the deconfliction channel with the Russians not nearly clear enough to avoid direct engagement with them. That would really get us into a war, slippery slope and all, and possibly not just with the Syrians in Syria. That sort of thing could touch off, say, little hybrid Russian-speaking green men crossing into Latvia or Estonia, stunning a disheveled NATO with a choice it is now very ill-suited to make.

But we’re not going to be able to coerce the bad actors here into compromise, if not submission, with anything less than more skin in the game. So again, looking at the current diplomatic void, we confront the problem of connecting military action to political objectives that are both desirable and achievable. As it has been from the start, that is very hard to do in Syria, and it may not be worth the risk now that the risk is considerably greater than it was in 2013.

The uppermost violent option may have been essentially regime decapitation. We have bombs, called Moabs (follow-ons to the Daisy Cutters of old), just one of which can incinerate several square blocks of downtown Damascus—most of the regime’s political and military elite with it—quicker than you can say “pass the hummus.” But then we create a vacuum that would probably change the civil war, but not end it. ISIS is no longer in a position to easily fill such a vacuum, but it is not clear who could or would, the non-salafi rebels being still, after all these years, far from a unified political force. Creating massive state failure by decapitating the Alawi regime would beg some outside power to intervene to suffocate the next pulse of violence, minister to the needy, rebuild governance structures of some kind, and babysit the whole arrangement for many years until it could stand on its own. There are no candidates able and willing to do that as far as I can see, and General Mattis knows this well even if Donald Trump does (or did) not.

Hence, option 1: Shayrat air base, and (hopefully) let’s go home. Well, we’ll soon see about that.

A fair bit has been made already about the signaling significance of the strikes against Syria on China and North Korea, as well as other interested parties in East Asia. Some even suppose that a main reason for the strike was to persuade China to coerce North Korea, in its own enlightened self-interest, so that we won’t have to coerce North Korea with very muscular kinetics ourselves a few months down the road. Breaking the news of the strike to the Chinese leader over dinner down in Florida has struck some observers as worthy of Don Corleone himself.

This is a bit much. Yes, a real test of American statecraft is at hand, and so may be a real test of the U.S. military: No U.S. administration can let the loonies in Pyongyang deploy a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of attacking the U.S. mainland, and they’re getting too damned close. (Some would say, and have said, we should have forced a showdown much earlier, before the North Koreans could credible menace Japan and thus weaken U.S.-Japanese ties.) So a signal of resolve can’t hurt.

But choosing the mildest of one’s options also can’t help very much. You cannot take down big game with a pea-shooter—it’s really as simple and basic as that. Besides, the U.S. government has been down this road before with China, trying to solve North Korea via the dynamics of the Sino-American relationship. We tried it, for example, in 2005 around this same time of the year. I know; I was there. It was clever and logical—and it didn’t work. Maybe it’ll work this time, with a different Chinese leadership and a more advanced North Korean threat to everyone. But if it does, or doesn’t, this jab to Syria will not make a big difference one way or the other.

Finally for now, a wider observation that may elide on our future. A first crisis in an administration’s life—which this approaches—is a shaping event. It shapes personal and process relationships, and it shapes in particular the inner confidence (or lack thereof) of the President. With this President, no one knows exactly what this might mean, for this President has less experience of governing and geopolitics than any President in American history. We are extraordinarily fortunate, therefore, that next to the most encyclopedically ignorant and temperamentally unsuited President ever to enter the Oval Office are two of the best-suited aides—Generals Mattis and McMaster—one can think of. Both of them know the political limits of the use of force, and the dangers of sloppy thinking applied thereto.

When I say fortunate, I really mean it. It is not too hard to imagine a situation—like one from just a few weeks ago, in fact—in which a Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor and a Steve Bannon still sitting on the National Security Council would push a novice President, now full of himself with a delusional sense of heroic boldness, into doing really dangerous things. One almost wants to thank Bashar al-Assad that he waited a few weeks before committing his latest war crime.

Everyone smiles when Otto von Bismarck’s old saw about God protecting drunks, fools, and the United States of America is hauled out. It’s just a joke, just a bit of semi-literary wit and harmless humor, right? Or is it?