2017-04-07 By Richard Weitz
The US decision to launch a limited cruise missile strike against a Syrian government air base near the city of Homs looks to be a sensible move given limited US leverage and interests in a battlefield that Americans do not want to join in force.
The strike, which consisted of 59 Tomahawk missiles, was a calculated warning shot and means to restore deterrence against the further use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria, but it also targeted other audiences.
The US strike also aimed to restore credibility to US threats of military action that had eroded following the US decision to back down from similar action in Syria in 2013.
The USS Porter Launches Strike Against Syrian Airfield
Hopefully, the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran will understand that they would face similarly decisive military action should they use, or prepare to use, weapons of mass destruction.
Since the target was the Syrian government units involved in the chemical weapons attack in Idlib, which killed almost one hundred civilians, the US strikes were, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, a “proportionate response” to a war crime.
They were prudently not extensive enough to create a power vacuum that the terrorists in Syria, who are being defeating, could exploit.
They also were appropriately coordinated with US allies in Europe and the Middle East, who generally applauded the strike.
Trump’s move fell within a well-established pattern of post-Cold War US foreign policy.
For example, the Clinton administration repeatedly launched cruise missiles against Iraqi WMD sites in the 1990s as well as al-Qaeda bases in Africa and Afghanistan—a policy that arguably produced better results than the large-scale US military interventions of the following decade.
The Trump administration still needs to manage the critical Russian-Syrian-Turkey triangle. Targeting a base where there were apparently no Russian planes or technicians was a good start.
Engaging in vigorous discussions now to avoid Russian-US military-to-military incidents is now even more essential.
For this reason, the Russian decision to suspend the mechanism to avoid Russian-US inadvertent engagements and collisions is unwelcome—though hopefully Moscow’s move represents merely a short-term symbolic step of protest rather than a long-term cessation.
The Kremlin’s denunciation of the strike was expected but manageable.
“President Putin considers the American strikes against Syria an aggression against a sovereign government in violations of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext,” The Washington Post quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Leaving aside the fact that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons represented a serious breach of international law and norms, the Russian concern about “causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state,” is indeed warranted.
The Russian decision to strengthen Syrian air defenses could present real problems should the United States, Turkey, or Israel need to attack Syrian targets, even those of ISIS, in self-defense.
For example, they may need to use force against terrorist chemical weapons assets in Syria.
At the end of last year, it was hoped that Syria would be one of many issues that would benefit from a general improvement in Russian-US ties under Trump. Even last month, Syria was one of the few areas of limited cooperation still available to both countries. Russia’s military presence in Syria guarantees Moscow some leverage with Washington.
For example, the Trump administration had supported the Russian-led peace talks in Astana and had downplayed criticism that, while the Russian forces in Syria sometimes fight ISIS, its main target has been other threats to Assad.
There were hopes that Russian and US forces could even work out a sectoral division of labor in Syria—though there would not be integrated Russian-US military operations in Syria, they might conduct separate operations in different parts of the country with appropriate de-confliction.
Of course, it was never clear if, even with Russian-Iranian help, an unreconstructed Assad regime could have restored control over all of Syrian territory.
And there was the problem of managing the Russian-Iranian military partnership in Syria and elsewhere. Now the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has ended opportunities for Russian-US-Assad cooperation in Syria and we need to look for a new path forward.
The missile strike will provide a short-term fillip to troubled Turkey-US relations.
When Tillerson visited Ankara last month, Turkish officials bluntly denounced US actions, hinted at US plotting and conspiracies against Turkey, and demanded changes in US policies, especially the extraction of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen and an end to US support for the planned YPG-led assault on Raffa.
Despite Turkish concerns about the connections between the YPG and the PKK, the US military sees supporting the YPG as unavoidable due to military expediency. The United States lacks alternative strong military partners on the ground, despite years of trying to build them out of the disparate insurgent forces, so must support the YPG for now.
Notwithstanding their differences over Syria, US-Turkish ties have improved regarding other issues, such as Turkey’s reluctance to fight ISIS, terrorist financing, and Assad’s future.
The Turkish government will hopefully moderate its criticism of Western countries after its constitutional referendum is over, insofar as much of the anti-Western rhetoric appears driven by Turkish domestic politics.
The Trump administration could profitably re-engage Turkey on non-Syrian issues, such as Afghanistan and Iran. Although Turkish leaders have become increasingly disinterested in improving ties with the European Union, they remain committed to NATO, which provides the main foundation for Turkish-US defense ties.
China’s calling for calm and expressing opposition to the use of both chemical weapons and other uses of force was expected. Trump was taking a risk in launching the military strike while hosting President Xi, but his team looks to have managed the issue well.
It remains unclear why the United States could not have waited until after the Chinese President had left U.S. territory. Perhaps the Pentagon was worried that the Syrian military was dispersing its forces and activating its air defenses.
Still, the challenge with China is not to become so distracted by Syria that the US negotiators neglect to press Beijing hard on the more threatening issue of North Korean WMDs.
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And two years ago we argued that “Obama Must Act or Putin Runs the Show.”