As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.
Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria. The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished. This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.
The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple. Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario. They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.
The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences. Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies. It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences. Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.
The larger question is “what next?” Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come. What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.
The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts. The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month. It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.
On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike. What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened. When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook. Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet). Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night. Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.
Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not. There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea. However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.
With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation. Three of those things come to the forefront this week. One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court. The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself. Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal. Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court. In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy. They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.
You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians. Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin. The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different. As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences. When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action. I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.
It looks like the same thing will happen this time around. Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken. President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself. Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013. He posted the following statement then.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.
Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.
Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose. Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.
Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response. It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame. That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.
We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria. The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area. The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him. He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened. Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight. The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own. It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.
One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway. One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do. This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed. I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem. However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.
Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test. He said, in a twenty-three word statement,
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
No one knows what that means. Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.
In total, it is all very strange.
President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future). North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure. Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow. In the interview in the Financial Times referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy. Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.
These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being. They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting. We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand. To me, the signs are that he is not.
These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation. And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security. In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”
Even a casual look at the news over the last few days reveals that the United States is about to undertake a military action against the Syrian regime in response to the Syrian’s near certain use of chemical weapons against its own population.
The opinion pieces and talking heads on TV, many of whom are former military officers or Defense Department civilian leaders, are full of cautions about embarking upon a military action without fulling understanding what the results might be. They are right to be cautious. Unfortunately, the United States is in a no-win situation. We cannot draw a clear “red line” that we would respond harshly should Bashar Al-Assad or his regime order the use of chemical weapons, or as they are commonly called, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and not do so. In order to credibly issue other such warnings in the future we must take action now. Deterrence is totally dependent on the credibility of a nation’s stated reaction to the act to be deterred. Every so often, nations need to act in order to show that their threatened response has credibility — that they actually can and will do what they say. On the other hand, there is no desire for a long-term United States military involvement there, yet the situation is going to become a significant long-term problem for the United States should we act.
I am guessing that the Obama Administration drew the red line over Syrian use of WMD to show that they were concerned with developments in that country and that we would not ignore what happens there. By taking a moral stand we could demonstrate that we actually cared what happens there. I do not think that the Obama Administration believed that Bashar would actually use them. After all, large-scale use of chemical weapons has not been done since the end of World War I. When nearly the entire world agrees that such use is beyond the realm of warfare, we need to take action. The question then becomes, what kind of action and how does it end?
The two most similar situations from the not too distant past are Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in December 1998 and the NATO involvement in Kosovo which began in March 1999. Both are instructive for what did and did not happen. In 1998, the United States and the United Kingdom began four days of Tomahawk missile strikes and bombing attacks from naval and air forces. The action was in response to Saddam’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions concerning WMD in Iraq. The Kosovo action was also a combination of NATO missile and air attacks to stop atrocities being carried out by Yugoslav troops against Kosovo civilians and fighters. After over three months of the air operation, the Yugoslavs agreed to withdraw and to allow NATO troops under United Nations auspices to enter the country as peacekeepers.
There are elements in both operations that reflect the current situation. In Iraq we thought we were dealing with WMD. In Kosovo we were dealing with mass killings and atrocities against civilians. Both exist in the current Syrian situation, but the context is totally different.
Operation Desert Fox was never intended to be an extended operation. The stated intent was to degrade Iraq’s ability to produce and use WMD. The United States never set out to totally eliminate any and all stockpiles or production facilities.
The air operation in Kosovo was intended to be of a similar nature — a short duration operation to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw. He and his cohorts turned out to be much tougher than expected as it took him over three months to get the message. Most analysts feel that the air operation would have continued indefinitely if the threat of placing NATO forces on the ground in Kosovo had not been made. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the forefront of publicly pushing for a ground operation and Milosevic finally caught on that he could not last forever.
In Syria we have a totally different situation. In 1998 Saddam was not using WMD against his own population like Bashar is now doing. In Kosovo Milosevic was in essence leading an external force into Kosovo and it was possible to withdraw to allow for peacekeepers to enter. There are no external forces to withdraw from Syria — they are caught in a civil war. No credible leader is pushing for putting troops into that country. So what happens now in Syria?
Every military planner knows that no military action should go forward without a clear understanding of the mission. A mission statement must clearly answer the “who, what, where and when” questions of the action. However, most importantly, it also answers the “why” and provides the desired end state. We are going to go in and blow things up and kill people — so why do that and what should it look like when we are finished? The crafting of the mission is crucial to success but not easily accomplished. Everything else stems from this including the analysis of alternative courses of action. It’s impossible to know what to do if you don’t know why you are doing it. We should expect the President to articulate this for the nation just prior to or coincident with the beginning of hostilities. There are signs this may happen soon.
When choosing a course of action one must ask several questions relating to the mission. Is it suitable (does it accomplish the goal)? Is it feasible (are the resources available sufficient)? Is it acceptable (is the level of risk involved worth the payoff)? Is it consistent (is it in keeping with our core values and objectives)? We need to know that all aspects of the situation have been thoroughly reviewed.
Finally, planners must have alternative courses of action ready to go — a “Plan B” if you will. Nothing is certain in life and it is even less certain in warfare. Planners can project what will happen but cannot be certain that the opponent will react as expected. They must have alternatives ready to go and have thoroughly thought through the “next step” or the mission will not be accomplished.
So what will do in Syria? Perhaps a more important question is what should we do in Syria? My honest answer is “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, that is not an acceptable answer.
My guess is that the mission will be similar to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 against Iraq. The goal will be to degrade the ability of the Syrian forces to use chemical weapons again in the future. They will not be able to prevent future use, they will only be able to make it harder for them to do so and also to make it “personal.” We will not threaten to put troops into Syria as was done in Kosovo because that is a step too far for both the will of the nation and our national interests. Therefore the plan will not be for a long-term campaign, but rather a limited action with limited objectives. In other words, to send a message that certain actions in Syria are unacceptable (and perhaps just as importantly, send a message to other bad actors in the world that we will act as promised if they cross the line). Whether or not Bashar gets the message is a different question and we may let loose the dogs of war without really knowing what will happen in the end. An unsettling situation to say the least.
Here is the rough outline of what I think will happen. There will be a limited air operation involving Tomahawk missiles and aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom and some other token NATO involvement including some Turkish and French forces. All of the media attention is on the ships and submarines in the Mediterranean but there will be larger air forces launched from Cyprus and Incirlik Turkey among other places. I would expect token involvement from Arab states — probably a few aircraft from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The planners will expect the operation to last 3-5 days and then they will re-group to assess whether their goals were met. The operation will begin at night, perhaps as early as this Friday night — a weekend night in the Arab world — in the hopes of tactical surprise and also limiting civilian casualties. The exact timing may depend on whether or not the United Nations observers currently in country are gone. They will not hit the chemical weapons storage sites. They will try to take out the means of delivering those weapons such as launchers and command and control sites. They will not target Bashar or his family but it is likely that they will target key military commanders that oversaw the use of the weapons. I am sure that we have fairly good intelligence as to who those people are at the senior tactical levels of command and we will send a “this one’s for you” type message that things will get very bad for any other military leaders that decide to use such weapons.
Just as in the previously discussed operations, Russia will voice its objections in the strongest possible terms, perhaps even threatening some kind of retaliation. Just as in those previous operations, in the end they will be unable to influence the events or prevent them from happening.
There are some serious unknowns to me that I hope the planners and decision makers have a handle on. Foremost among those is whether or not Bashar thinks that his end is near and that he has nothing to lose — thus ordering ever more extensive use of the chemical weapons. This is where the success of the initial strikes will be critical in eliminating the means to deliver those weapons and whether the message gets through to subordinate commanders that their own health and well-being is in jeopardy from us if they follow those orders. Word of further defections by senior leaders in the regime will be a good measure of effectiveness as to whether the “message” hit home.
In the end, the United States and western powers must do something or our future credibility in such matters is seriously undermined. A quick, short duration attack focused on disrupting the Syrian military’s use of WMD in the future seems to be the best short-term approach. Only after that will we know what the future holds for Syria.