Photo by Voice of America News: Scott Bobb Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22023821
There has never been a strategy for US involvement in Syria, and there isn’t one now.
President Obama came into the foreign policy responsibilities of the Oval Office a lot like Jimmy Carter did; primarily focused on the need to address domestic issues, on the heels of a deeply unpopular military adventure abroad, and largely with a sense towards coalition building rather than unilateral action. Both lacked experience on this front, and both suffered from the void of a cohesive strategy, to be reluctantly pulled one inch at a time into conflicts that didn’t end up making sense from a geopolitical or ideological standpoint. An internally focused presidency does not preclude international conflicts from arising, nor does it reduce the inherited military and foreign policy infrastructure that defines at least one part of what constitutes American interests abroad.
A major impediment to developing an overarching policy on Syria, or the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, is the fact that we don’t have a foreign policy agenda with a lifespan longer than eight years. We have yet to resolve the inner crisis between the two halves of our foreign policy psyche; the idealist who seeks the expansion of civil liberties abroad, and the pragmatist who wants to preserve economic interests on a purely rational basis. What we end up with is an inconsistent application of both sides, in which we ignore the moral imperative to intervene in conflicts where we have no economic interest, and when we do intervene to preserve economic interests, we feel compelled to dress it up as a moral crusade. Very rarely does a conflict satisfy both sides of the dilemma at once.
As a result, we frequently stand by and watch as a human rights catastrophe evolves in unimaginable horror, far beyond the point at which intervention would be most likely to affect a certain outcome, as we wait for a clear political interest to present itself. In this case, instead of a political interest, the Syrian regime has crossed an entirely arbitrary line that many believe threatens our moral legitimacy, which we will need sometime in the future to justify an as-yet-to-be-determined military action.
That’s the problem with electing a president without a clear foreign policy agenda; the United States doesn’t have a template to fall back on, but that nagging sense of duty that punctuates our political rhetoric doesn’t go away just because we don’t know what to do. Some response is necessary, even if it’s ineffective, because we can’t afford to risk our status as the most powerful nation in the world by just not doing anything. When the response we devise doesn’t really accomplish anything, because there is no larger strategy it is designed to advance, the intervention becomes meaningless at best, and counterproductive at worst. Trump’s decision to intervene militarily on behalf of Syrian victims of chemical weapons attacks might be noble if it was taken up by anyone other than the man who, only weeks ago, halted the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States.
Forget, for a moment, the systematic kidnapping and torture of over 18,000 people, the terrifyingly organized documentation of their executions, the use of barrel bombs on civilians and the targeting of hospitals and doctors for disappearance and rendition. Forget the fact that nearly 400,000 Syrians have been killed in this conflict so far. Forget the images of dozens of dead Syrian babies who periodically wash ashore in Cyprus and Turkey from the desperate and deadly voyage out of the hell hole that was their homeland. The use of a sarin gas to kill somewhere between 40 and 80 people, it is argued, crosses a unique threshold which is unmoved by the torture and execution of a 14 year old boy.
The problem with using the moral imperative argument in this moment is that it only serves to highlight the extremely selective application of the standard. To even touch on the atrocities committed by the Saudi regime in its campaign in Yemen, with American military apparatus, American special forces and intelligence support and occasionally American naval artillery, would constitute an entire article of its own. The use of white phosphorus in highly populated civilian areas in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 was followed by a promise from the IDF that they wouldn’t use as much next time. This argument on its own is too susceptible to accusations of a double standard, which leaves us only with the geopolitical realist argument where we start by asking: what is it going to help us achieve?
The problem we’ve all been dancing around for the last 6 years or so is that Syria is not strategically important to us like it is to Turkey, Russian and Iran. It’s the reason they are the only parties who have been even marginally effective at starting negotiations to end the conflict. Its closest analogy is our relationship with the Saudis; it’s a despotic and brutal regime that exports the most violent wahhabist ideology, whose house of cards monarchy we prop up with mountains and mountains of military equipment and munitions. Occasionally, we help them fight a completely useless and destabilizing military adventure of their own in Yemen, and would come to their defense in the event that, say, a Saudi airbase was bombed by an Iranian naval vessel.
There is no evidence that the war hawks in the Senate who advocated for military action in Syria years ago, and who continue to push for military intervention in Ukraine today, are becoming any more aware of this dynamic. We should all certainly hope that someone is war gaming this thing out beyond “step one: send rockets”, but the zeal with which people on both sides of the political spectrum have applauded this “tough stance on Syria” makes me sincerely doubt it. We don’t need to wage a fuzzy war in Syria, because we have no clear possibility for anything approaching a win in what is a sandy sea of bad options.
But you can be certain that this is not the last of this escalation. Trump is concretely invested in Syria now, if only to ensure that this action yields some result through the time-honored American tradition of an almost pathological dedication to the sunk cost fallacy.
Ignoring for a moment the foreign policy issues, like how this fits into the broader concept of our role in the current geopolitical arrangement, what did this strike actually accomplish for us? Without a clear explanation from the White House, it’s hard to say. Secretary of State Tillerson has said one of the goals was to render the airbase “inoperable”, and other representatives of the administration have stated that the attack was designed to send a message that the United States was not afraid to strike military targets inside Syria. Outside of these immediate objectives, we can’t evaluate what the undisclosed long term objectives of the attack actually were.
We can, however, point to several glaring negative consequences that are likely to develop, which are decidedly not in U.S. interests. The decision to strike a military target has to check a few boxes and clearly answer a few questions for it to be worthwhile; for example, “how does this strike further a political objective or create space for a resolution to the conflict?”, “how does this strike strategically weaken or incapacitate an opponent?”, “how will this strike act as a deterrent for future behavior?”, “how does this strike create the potential for blowback?”.
As outlined earlier, the United States does not have a political objective in Syria, and is decidedly the least influential actor in the conflict. Trump’s campaign rhetoric aside, he has emphasized his commitment to destroying ISIS on multiple occasions, but up until this weekend had not supported the removal of Assad from power. Now in the wake of this strike, the administration appears to see regime change as a priority.
This is the part where we remind everyone that the toppling of a central government by the United States, without any plan for the political future of the country, has had predictably disastrous effects in recent history. In some deep irony, the power vacuum stemming from the Bush administration’s lack of political planning for post-invasion Iraq largely contributed to the ability of ISIS to gain a stronghold in western Iraq. Prioritizing the destruction of Assad will create another power vacuum in Damascus, which is highly likely to be filled by ISIS. It would be redundant to explain why allowing a psychotically violent insurgency an opportunity to take the resources of an actual military and all the trappings of a real nation state would be a very bad thing.
Perhaps the goal was to create space for conflict resolution, another unlikely option given the fact that the bombing of al-Shayrat was interpreted by Russia as an unprovoked attack on an ally. They have since responded by pulling out of the arrangement with US forces to communicate imminent strikes, an agreement meant to avoid unintended casualties of either Russian or American military personnel.
Which brings us back to another truism of diplomacy; escalation of force must be clearly understood as a consequence of some failure on the other party’s part, that’s what makes it an effective tool for behavior change. You don’t start off with the nuclear option, you gradually approach it while allowing the other guy to change course. This is why we are currently debating whether or not a computer hack is an act of war, there is no historical precedent that tells each party what the consequences for such behavior would be, and we are not sure if our interpretation of something as a first strike is the message Moscow was intending to send. The chaos theory of international diplomacy not only makes you an unpredictable actor in the pursuit of conflict resolution, it makes you an unreliable partner as well, which tanks the trust necessary to avoid an all-out war.
As far as incapacitating or debilitating an opponent, or deterring future behavior, within a day al-Shayrat was used by the Syrian air force to launch airstrikes against opposition groups. So, that seems like a “no”.
The possibility for blowback is probably the most interesting and convoluted area of analysis. We currently have a large number of Special Forces “advisers” in Syria, recently augmented by plans to add at least one thousand combat troops and all the attendant military infrastructure. We are still “advising and assisting” an intense battle in Iraq to retake Mosul from ISIS fighters. To this end, US forces currently have a quiet marriage of necessity with Qassem Suleimani, the influential leader of the Iranian Quds Force, against ISIS in Iraq. The strongest representation of Tehran’s support in Syria, Suleimani is also directing Assad’s war in Syria. In northern Iraq, American forces advise and support Kurdish forces, considered to be maybe the most reliable of the regional militias, which are being intermittently attacked by Erdogan’s Turkish military, under the guise of fighting ISIS. Erdogan has has softened his position on the removal of Assad, in a tilt toward the Russian position in Syria, instead prioritizing the assault on the Kurds to solidify his domestic political support. Turkey is home to the Incirlik air base, the United States’ most strategic installation to the middle eastern theatre of operations. As Erdogan’s autocratic grip on Turkey tightens, his relationship with Russia and the risk that poses to NATO’s solidarity are tangible.
So yes, the decision to bomb a Syrian air field could have significant consequences for U.S. forces inside Syria, U.S. forces in Iraq, our tenuous relationship with Iran to influence events in Iraq, and our reliance on Turkey’s proximity and partnership to conduct these activities, among other things. And it didn’t even render the base inoperable for a full 24 hours.