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The Art of the Syrian Deal

USS Ross (DDG-71) By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg. – Source, Public Domain.

Fifty-nine cruise missiles hit the Syrian airbase responsible for last week’s nerve gas attack.  Russian personnel were present at the airbase, and Russia was notified ahead of time about the strike.  This means that Syria was also notified ahead of time.  According to HR McMaster, the US intentionally avoided targeting buildings suspected of holding gas stockpiles. Syrian casualties have apparently been minimal. Here’s a discussion of satellite imagery post attack.  The Russian response has been fairly muted, although Russia now claims it will cease all deconfliction procedures (communications that prevent US and Russian planes from operating in the same airspace). As of the moment, the operation appears to have ended.

Some implications:

  • The direct military impact of the attack is trivial. The next big question is how Syrian actors will respond; will the Assad government moderate its tactics, at least insofar as chemical weapons are concerned?  Will rebel groups take heart, and increase their tempo of operations?
  • If Russian personnel were present at the airbase that launched the chemical attacks, then there are some really big questions about how much they knew about Syrian government plans, and when they knew it.  I doubt Assad would have informed the Russians in advance of the attack, but handling procedures for chemical munitions differ considerably from those for dumb bombs; it’s hard to believe that the Russians wouldn’t have noticed something.
  • The Israelis are claiming that they have evidence that Assad ordered the attacks personally.  Take or leave that as you will; for my part, this does not seem to be something that the Israelis would go out of their way to lie about.  Bibi has made every effort to cultivate Putin over the last few years, and it’s not as if the Israelis were ever that enthusiastic about the replacement of Assad.
  • If I’m ISIS I’m very happy today.  The net effect of all of this is less cooperation and more conflict between all of the partners fighting against ISIS.  Whether it will be enough to stave off the offensive on Raqqa is a different question.
  • Good discussions at Lawfare on legality; see here, here, and here.
  • The idea that the Chinese will be intimidated by this does not seem… sound.  The US just conducted a strike that eliminated virtually zero extant Syrian military capability, and that endangered no Americans.  This is not the stuff that strong reputations for toughness, resolve, and credibility are made of.
  • It’s not at all obvious what message the Syrian government is supposed to be taking from this.  Bombing civilians is okay, but chemical agents are a step too far?  Assad is probably fine with that, on balance.  Regime change is back on the table?  Hopefully there’s some backchannel communication designed to clarify US expectations for Moscow and Damascus.

Overall, we’re in the least worst case right now; stuff got blowed up, but the impact seems relatively small.  This could certainly change in the future, especially if the Trump administration decides to follow up with additional kinetic measures.

With respect to the domestic debate in the US…  My views on this strike are clear; it was a bad idea.  Along the historic continuum of bad ideas from Little Big Horn to Operation Barbarrosa, it could be a lot worse; if there’s no escalation, then it’s not a huge disaster.  I certainly share Paul’s distaste for pundits who appear to be thirsty for bombing, ANY bombing, and who aren’t sufficiently sated by the five other bombing campaigns that the US is currently conducting.  And I am utterly flummoxed that anyone would trust Trump to manage this competently, even if they believed the initial strike was a good idea.  At the same time, the claim that the Democrats somehow drove Trump to bomb Syria by criticizing him over his Russia ties would be fraudulent if it weren’t too flatly idiotic to constitute fraud.

See also Marc Lynch.


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