SFS On Topic: U.S. Airstrike in Syria

US President Donald Trump being briefed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford via secure video teleconference after a missile strike on Syria (Reuters / The White House)

On April 4, 2017, evidence emerged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons–most likely the nerve agent sarin–on civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun, Syria. In response, on April 6, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airbase, with 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting the Syrian airbase. SFS faculty offered their thoughts on the consequences of this series of events, including justifications for the strike and future implications for the conflict in Syria.

Long-Term Impacts

In an op-ed on Lawfare, Professor Daniel Byman wrote that while the recent missile strikes represent a dramatic policy shift, the lasting impact of these strikes alone will be minimal. It originally seemed that the Trump administration would try to work with Russia in the fight against ISIS in Syria, implicitly accepting even recently that the Assad regime would remain in power. Breaking with Russia in the Middle East is a positive move, according to Byman, but one missile strike alone will not actually have a significant impact – in fact, such strikes often backfire by giving their intended target powerful rhetorical tools. Even sustained strikes would have a limited effect without forces on the ground, Byman explained.

“So we can feel good that we punched back against a dictator who is brutalizing his own people, but the bombing will do little to advance American goals in Syria without more dramatic and lasting changes,” he wrote.

Additionally, Byman expressed his concern that the U.S. acted hastily in conducting the missile strikes, without properly and diplomatically coordinating with other forces.

“Indeed, directly or indirectly we may be risking a military conflict with Russia, and even if the Trump administration wants to confront Moscow over Syria, such an escalation demands careful thought, coordination, and planning,” Byman wrote. “Most important, it is unclear what political settlement the United States wants in Syria and which actors Washington wants to empower—we know what we don’t want, but it is less clear what we do want.” The full op-ed can be found here.

Conflicting Messages

Professor Colin Kahl, former National Security Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, was interviewed on CBS News about the Trump Administration’s mixed signals regarding their strategy in Syria; U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have each sent conflicting messages with their public statements.

“It’s completely unclear to me and most observers what the diplomatic end game is – which means there’s lots of scenarios for us to get more deeply involved in the Middle East, but not a lot of scenarios for us to extricate ourselves,” Kahl said.

Though possibly meant to create a strategic element of surprise, Kahl explained that this presents a serious credibility problem for the United States if the administration does not follow through on their word. The lack of transparency also presents a problem for the United States as democracy.

“We’re a democracy, and in a democracy we should have debates about how deeply we become involved in foreign military engagement,” Kahl said. “What I worry about is that the Trump administration is creeping, creeping, creeping closer to a bunch of quagmires in the Middle East without any public conversation.” Watch the full interview here.

In a post on his Global Justice Blog, Centennial Fellow Mark P. Lagon lists ten political, strategic, and moral questions about the U.S. airstrike against Syria.

“President Trump was decisive,” Lagon wrote in one question.“What mix of several possible motivations was conclusive – punishing barbarity in general, chemical weapons being a special affront (especially after Assad had agreed to give them up), signaling allies and foes abroad of U.S. resolve, or a wag the dog diversion from investigations (Russia), scandals (Russia and more), and domestic legislative failures (health care)?”

Escalatory Path with Russia

Kahl also published an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining the serious potential consequences of U.S. involvement in Syria – namely, war with Russia. Kahl wrote that the recent U.S. missile attack, justified as a reaction to the chemical attack and other atrocities in Syria, infuriated Russia. Additionally, calls for increased involvement have already begun mounting, with more hawkish figures calling for further U.S. action. This runs a huge risk of spiraling conflict because the Russian military already has such a strong presence in Syria, Kahl explained.

“However justified and morally satisfying, any use of military force is serious business, and even those limited strikes could lead the United States and Russia down an escalatory path,” Kahl said. Read the op-ed here.

Professor Wa’el Alzayat (MSFS’07) appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story to speak about the role Russian-U.S. relations will play in Syria moving forward.

“Something struck a chord with this last attack, with the President at least,” Alzayat said. “Now will they match their outrage with an effective policy to get Russia to reign in Assad, and basically deescalate the situation on the ground, or let alone support a more genuine political dialogue? That remains to be seen, and I share my skepticism.”

Iran’s Reaction

In an op-ed on LobeLog, Professor Shireen T. Hunter analyzed Iran’s potential responses to the U.S. missile attack. Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the civil war, because his fall would result in a dramatic shift in the Middle East power balance against Iran’s favor. Iran has been treading carefully around the U.S. missile attacks, however, responding only with verbal condemnation. Hunter wrote that Iran should not risk becoming a future target of U.S. attacks.

“Thus, Iran should avoid not only taking risks but even the appearance of doing so,” Hunter wrote. “In the longer term, Iran should abandon its illusions of Muslim unity and disengage from the Arab world beyond what is necessary to protect its security and well-being.” Read the full piece here.