Trump’s strikes on Syria risk retaliation, escalation in a war he wants to avoid

By Paul Sonne April 15 at 12:17 PM
Less than two weeks ago, President Trump promised to withdraw from Syria. Then, 10 days later, he opened a new front against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad that risks drawing the United States into a broader conflict there.

By attacking Syria early Saturday local time, the Trump administration says it sought to warn Assad against what Western nations said was his use of illegal chemical warfare agents, following the April 7 gassing of civilians near Damascus.

The administration calculated that the need to send a signal to Assad over chemical weapons outweighed the possibility of provoking a response from his allies, Russia and Iran, on the battlefield in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East or even in cyberspace.

The risk, analysts say, is that the United States would then end up in a cycle of escalation that entangles the American military more deeply in the Syrian conflict than the administration intended.

“Given the linkage between Russia, Iran and Assad, an attack that we would consider limited and precise might be misconstrued by one or more of those three parties and justify from their perspective a retaliatory strike,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. “Then what do we do?”

President Trump announces Friday’s attack on Syria in retaliation for its apparent use of chemical weapons on civilians. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
[A ‘dramatic deterioration’ in Syria as the war intensifies and suffering spikes ]

Possible scenarios for retaliation include attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. forces in the Middle East, stepped-up incidents against U.S. forces and their allies within Syria or “asymmetric responses” such as cyberattacks entirely outside the theater itself.

It remains unclear whether the strike will prevent Assad’s forces from turning to chemical weapons in the future as the leader seeks to extend his reach across the country while consolidating gains in the civil war.

Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University, said military action would deter Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons only if the United States conducts ­follow-up strikes when new atrocities occur.

“I don’t think, in order to make the deterrent stick, that this can be the last attack,” Ford said. The former U.S. diplomat, who said Assad’s forces were using chemical weapons in part because they lack manpower, predicted that the Syrian leader “will test us — and we will have to do this again.”

Trump promised the strikes would not necessarily be a one-off. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the president said in an address at the White House late Friday night.

Some who support the strikes say that even if they fail to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, they will send the message that the international community is watching and intends to enforce the ban on chemical weapons that countries instituted after World War I.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the strikes, in which the United Kingdom and France participated, would “send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.” Referring to last month’s nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England, she said, “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized — within Syria, on the streets of the U.K. or anywhere else in our world.”

The military intervention also comes as Washington has all but given up on seeking the removal of Assad more than seven years into Syria’s civil war. Trump wants the Pentagon to withdraw U.S. troops after the Kurdish-led militia that Washington is backing in Syria finishes off the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group.

The departure of U.S. troops, military strategists say, will probably pave the way for Assad’s consolidation of control in the country, backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

The result is what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described in congressional testimony on Thursday as “contrary impulses.” On the one hand, Trump wants the United States to have nothing to do with Syria. On the other, he wants to dictate norms of behavior on Syria’s battlefield that upset him when violated.

Those who take a dim view of selective strikes in response to chemical weapons usage say the United States has given up trying to ensure the departure of Assad, which means his forces will continue to kill whomever they wish as they consolidate control, even if they do so with conventional weapons.

“As long as you have a strategy that leaves Assad in place and allows him to slaughter his people as he sees fit, he is going to do so,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “And he is probably going to use chemical warfare agents.”

For Washington to stop Assad from killing his own citizens more broadly, “we’re getting closer to a regime-change scenario because he’s bombing almost every day,” said Ford, the former U.S. ambassador. “To me, that’s drawing us in. I have zero confidence that we could control where that goes then.”

Pollack suspects that the Syrian regime and Iran will not retaliate against the United States because they are ascendant on a battlefield that Trump has promised to leave, and they will not want to engage in any action that could prevent a U.S. departure that would amount to a big win for them.

Russia could have more of a motive to retaliate, Pollack said, even though before last year’s attack on Assad’s airfield, U.S. forces warned Russia in advance.

“Russia is the wild card out there,” Pollack said, because President Vladimir Putin’s interests are bigger than Syria. “They are about how much [the United States is] allowed to act unrestrained and how much does he want to demonstrate that he can fight back.”

The strike also raises thorny questions for Trump administration officials about why they are willing to intervene when Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians but will not act in instances where his forces are killing far more with conventional weapons.

Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Mattis suggested that chemical weapons differ from conventional arms in their barbarism.

“Some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just the Chemical Weapons Convention, but of civilization itself,” Mattis said, explaining why the Trump administration decided to strike last year.

For some political scientists, that logic represents a slippery slope, where the United States is compelled into military action on humanitarian grounds only depending on the type of killing that is occurring.


Russia responds to airstrikes in Syria with harsh words but no fire

By Anton Troianovski April 14 at 2:35 PM

MOSCOW — In the hours after American missiles rained down on its ally in Syria, Russia made clear it had no plans to respond in kind.

After all, Moscow still wields considerable control over the direction of the war.

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, described the strike as an act of aggression against a sovereign state carried out on the pretext of a staged chemical attack. At the U.N. Security Council, Russia called on the world to condemn the United States. But there was a second, unspoken message: The incoming cruise missiles did not cross the threshold that would provoke a military response against Western forces.

Instead, it appears that the Western coalition’s limited strikes did little to change the facts on the ground. Russia, negotiating primarily with Iran and Turkey, remains keen to forge a political settlement in Syria that would cement a long-term foothold for Moscow in the Middle East. The United States, with President Trump’s long-term strategy for the country still uncertain, is left as a less influential player
Analysts say that Putin’s Syria intervention is part of his effort to turn Russia into an actor known for asserting its interests on a global scale. Russia’s insistent warnings that a U.S. airstrike could bring Russian retaliation — and the United States’ apparent effort to avoid threatening Russian assets in its assault — showed that strategy at work.

During the Cold War, U.S. leaders “didn’t love the Soviet Union, but they respected us and treated us as a serious partner,” Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said in an interview. “This perception that Russia is in ruins still lingers. You must look at reality.”

But Russia’s backing of Assad and contribution to massive civilian casualties in Syria, according to Western leaders, have taken a toll on the country’s reputation. The Syrian conflict was one reason the United States imposed sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle earlier this month — causing the Russian stock market and currency to plummet.
“Bashar al-Assad is not our friend,” Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted Saturday on Twitter. “Putin is now saving Assad with the money of Russian retirees. This must be stopped.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking Saturday about the aftermath of the airstrikes, tied Russia’s support of Assad to what she described as a destructive pattern by Putin. She referred also to last month’s poisoning in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter — an incident that Britain blames on Russia. Moscow has denied involvement.

[How did ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter survive nerve-agent poisoning?]

“The lesson of history is when the global rules and standards that keep us safe come under threat we must take a stand and defend them. That’s what we’ve always done and will continue to do,” May said. “The use of a nerve agent in the U.K. in recent weeks is part of a pattern of disregard for these norms.”

Russia’s response Saturday underscored Putin’s effort to use Syria to help portray himself as a guarantor of global stability despite the torrent of Western criticism. He described the U.S. airstrike as the latest in two decades of American-led interventions that, in the Kremlin’s telling, have unwound the international order.

“The current escalation of the situation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations,” Putin said in a statement read by Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, at an emergency Security Council session called by Russia on Saturday. “History will set things right, and Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya.”

But while Russia slammed the missile attack rhetorically, it signaled that the strike had not crossed the threshold that would bring Russian retaliation. Moscow’s response shows that Washington appears to have succeeded in delivering a blow that did not provoke Russia militarily.

“Before we took action, the United States communicated with the Russian Federation to reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties,” the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., said in a video message to Russians posted on social media Saturday.

Over the past week, pro-Kremlin officials, independent analysts and the state-allied news media described the situation in Syria as a uniquely dangerous moment. Not for decades, they said, had the United States and Russia come so close to a direct military clash. The result, according to the worst-case predictions, could be a new world war.
“It was palpable, the fear,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign-policy analyst in Moscow.
But after the attack, Russia’s Defense Ministry quickly said that no Russian air defenses were deployed against the incoming fire, even though thousands of the country’s troops are stationed across Syria.

Hours later, the Russian Embassy in Damascus said no Russians were known to have been hurt in the overnight airstrike. And the Defense Ministry even noted that while Syria shot down some cruise missiles, Damascus did so using its own Soviet-made — not Russian-made — equipment.

“Not a single one of the cruise missiles entered the zone of Russian air defense systems,” the Defense Ministry said.