President Donald Trump hasn’t hidden his desire to respond with military force to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s latest reported chemical attack that killed at least 49 people over the weekend. He has hinted that a U.S. military attack is imminent, declaring “We cannot allow atrocities like that,” and cancelled a trip to South America Tuesday in order "to oversee the American response.”
Trump has even indicated that he might look to act not just against Syria, but its key backers Iran and Russia. “If it’s the Russians, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out,” Trump told reporters Monday. On Wednesday, he warned Russia to "get ready" for U.S. missiles fired into Syria, castigating the Kremlin for propping up "a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"
Trump and his team are likely driven, experts said, by the idea that they need to restore U.S. credibility in Syria, and demonstrate his power to adversaries Russia and Iran. But there are no clear options on the table that appear likely to deter Assad from further atrocities, without miring the U.S. deeper in a conflict it has been looking to extricate itself from, or setting itself up for a dangerous confrontation with Russia, experts told VICE News.
Instead, any U.S. military action will take place in a theater of war where Assad, through the backing of his sponsors Russia and Iran, now has a dominant upper hand.
“There is no easy policy option that will also be effective,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Assad and his enablers have shown that they will not stop indiscriminately targeting civilians, either with chemical or more conventional weapons. The U.S. military has many potential targets to choose from, but there are no clear next steps, beyond punitive airstrikes.”
The problem is punitive airstrikes have already proved to be an ineffective deterrent. Just over a year ago, Trump ordered a strike involving 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syria’s Shayrat airbase as a decisive warning to the regime for its deadly chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun from the base just days earlier. The U.S. strikes cost an estimated $100 million, but failed to provide a lasting deterrent to the use of chemical weapons.
“It did very little actual damage, was fairly expensive and it clearly didn’t stop the regime from conducting further chemical attacks,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow specializing in combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute.
“It’s hard to see how that sort of limited, symbolic bombardment will be much more effective this time, particularly given that the Assad regime is in a much stronger position than it was even a year ago in terms of the conflict.”
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at London’s Chatham House think tank, agreed. “Trump has to recognize that a limited symbolic response like those launched last year in Khan Sheikhoun are not going to cut it this time,” she told VICE News.
In fact, the ineffectiveness of that previous U.S. response will have informed Assad’s decision to carry out its latest chemical attack, according to analysis by IHS Markit’s Conflict Monitor, which said the Douma attack will have been partly motivated by Syria’s desire to test — and ultimately discredit — the U.S.’s power of deterrence in the conflict. The atrocity effectively presented the U.S. with two options: either repeat the punitive, but ineffective, cruise missile strikes, or be drawn reluctantly into an escalation in the conflict, neither of which would have to ability to change the course of the war.
“Trump can weaken Assad’s air force. But what comes next? A return to all-out civil war?”
Instead Khatib predicts a more expansive, sustained and larger-scale air response targeting strategic military targets linked to the chemical weapons program — “primarily airbases because that’s where these attacks are being launched from.” She said Israel may also be willing to be involved in strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria, given its increasing concern over Tehran’s presence. Russia recently blamed Israel for strikes on a Syrian airbase near Homs Sunday that killed 14 people, including at least four Iranians.
But this kind of expanded assault from the U.S. will come with greater risks — notably, the increased likelihood of accidentally striking Russian military personnel who have greatly expanded their presence at Syrian military sites, according to analysis by IHS Markit’s Conflict Monitor. And questions linger about how committed the U.S. really is to greater conflict in Syria. Just last week, Trump told reporters he was done with the conflict, saying: “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.”
Bronk said that since the strikes on Shayrat airbase a year ago, Russia has stepped up its integration with the Syrian air defense network and made “explicitly clear that Russian specialists will be working alongside Syrian forces within the air defense network.” Any major strikes on Syrian military sites would likely require neutralizing the air defense network, which would carry a significant risk of putting Russian forces in the firing line.
“If they want to go for something bigger than Shayrat, then they have to contend with the Russians and they have to potentially kill Russian servicemen and women, and destroy Russian assets — which is so far something the U.S. has been very cautious not to do.”
Already the prospect of American military action has sparked a warning from Moscow, with Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, warning Monday that there could be “grave repercussions.”
“Without a political strategy, the U.S. is simply going to find itself in the same position again, drained militarily and dragged into another quagmire.”
There’s also the broader issue that deepening U.S. involvement in the seven year, multisided conflict without a wider strategy for bringing the war to a close may only prolong the conflict, and with it, the suffering of the Syrian people. The direct intervention of Russian forces in 2015 turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor, with most of the country’s territory now back under regime control. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces control a large swath of the country east of the Euphrates, including valuable oil and gas fields recovered from ISIS, while rebel groups have been confined to several small pockets.
“Trump can weaken Assad’s air force. But what comes next? A return to all-out civil war?” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “Any strike needs to be linked to a broader strategy to limit the influence of Assad, Iran and ISIS.”
With none of the sides in a position to triumph outright militarily, a negotiated political resolution will be the only way out of the war, said Khatib. “All they can do is use military clout as a political tool to give themselves greater weight in negotiation,” she said.
While a more aggressive U.S. military posture in Syria might convince Russia that Washington is serious about bringing the conflict to an end, it would need to be accompanied by a political strategy. So far, though, Trump and his team have given no indication they have any such strategy, she said.
“Without a political strategy, the U.S. is simply going to find itself in the same position again, drained militarily and dragged into another quagmire,” she said.
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017.