A Few Quick and First Thoughts on the US Airstrike on Syria

missileThe use of chemical weapons against civilians cannot continue with impunity, but is a 50-missile strike the right response? My thought is that it is not a great response – but that in the circumstances nothing better was available. (Though at almost $15 million, an expensive one.)

First of all, such a one-off strike is unlikely to be militarily decisive, even if it has made a real dent in the Assad regime’s airpower advantage. It is essentially more symbolic than kinetic, an act of communication, drawing red lines and reiterating that the USA is a serious force (and putting paid to the silly claims that Russia has become the regional hegemon in the Middle East).

That’s not at all a bad thing, but the question is what the message was meant to be, and how it is received, and that depends heavily on Moscow.

Its initial response was to huff and puff and call it unprovoked aggression, of course; it could do nothing less. But it is noticeable that its much-vaunted air defence systems – which could have been deployed against the Tomahawk missiles although not take all 50 out – was not even activated. Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it. That is a heartening sign of realism.

And how does Damascus respond? The chemical attack was as politically stupid as it was morally bankrupt, suggesting either that Assad’s regime is tone deaf (not impossible) or that it had some more nefarious intent, precisely to try and force a response in the hope of solidifying Russian support (a little conspiratorial, but not impossible).

Much depends on the backchannel messages from Moscow to Damascus. Will they be “don’t worry, this was just a one-off, let business continue as usual, but lay off the chemicals” or “what the hell were you doing, stop making this worse for us all”? Obviously no one will tell us openly, but we should be able to divine from what happens next whether the Russians are in control or not (and usually, to be honest, imperial backers have at best imperfect control of their supposed clients and proxies) and whether tactical successes on the ground mean more to them than the wider geopolitical context.

With Tillerson due in Moscow next week, this is an opportunity for Moscow to show some kind of flexibility and willingness to come out of the trenches. Assad’s move allows them the cover to withdraw slightly from him. If they are willing to take it. A big if. My money, sadly, on their not being willing or able to make the move.

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  1. Reblogged this on Andreas Umland.

  2. George Dogivanis

     /  April 7, 2017

    Excellent analysis!!

    *DOGIVANIS K.GEORGE* *http://combatraining.blogspot.gr *

    2017-04-07 9:47 GMT+03:00 In Moscow’s Shadows :

    > Mark Galeotti posted: “The use of chemical weapons against civilians > cannot continue with impunity, but is a 50-missile strike the right > response? My thought is that it is not a great response – but that in the > circumstances nothing better was available. (Though at almost $15 m” >

  3. Good assessment of the phase just after the event. Given Putin’s inability to take any off-ramp provided him in the past, I fear he will eschew this as well. Damage to the West seems far more important to him than any benefits accruing to Russia.

    But this also looks like the final capitulation of the alt-right fantasy that somehow Russia was going to abandon Syria, and join with the US against Iran/China and who knows else. Instead, it sends a clear signal to N. Korea, China and Iran: the US will use force where appropriate. That looks much more like coming from Mattis and McMaster. That Bannon was “Bannonished” just before this suggests that the grown-ups are back in charge.

    • “My money, sadly, on their not being willing or able to make the move.”

      Why should they? Russia has clear geopolitical and strategic interests in Syria; its moral or Great Power status is only relevant in so far as we think they should be there, or can prevent them from being there… but this appeal to our obvious superiority is hardly as clear cut as the Cold War Redux logic dominating discourse since the strikes would indicate.

      Firstly, you state you wonder if Assad might be tone deaf. But what tone? One of the bullet points doing the rounds of the internet analysis today is that the UN declares there have been 160 chemical attacks in Syria since 2011. Only this one triggered direct strikes though. Why?

      We don’t even know why it was launched yet. Or for certain who by; I found it rather darkly amusing that the same chemical weapons that could never, ever possibly be released from their local manufacture by the weak, dumb bombs of the Russians apparently, when potentially accidentally hit by America’s powerful thrusting Tomahawks could indeed kill nearby civilians, which is why their strikes against the airbase were so, SO carefully targeted to ensure the thing we just said was impossible couldn’t happen… Hmm.

      Which isn’t to say I’m saying it wasn’t Assad. Or even local Russians on the ground. I can think of one very strong reason someone at that airbase might think they could get away with loading some Sarin bombs and giving Islamic Terrorists, and anyone unfortunate enough to be stood anywhere near them a damn good gassing… How about the St Petersburg subway bombings immediately before the strikes? A bit of personal vengeance, or just the assumption that some serious killing wouldn’t cause too much worry here and now?

      After all, it’s hard to argue Assad or any local actor got the tone wrong when, for months before this, President Trump was declaring he could work with Putin against Islamic Terrorism, and the US should stay disengaged from Syria even if it was using chemcial weapons. And Putin wasn’t exactly concerned about local ethics violations in his War Against Terrorism either.

      The real problem was that the tone is changing so fast and unpredictably. You mentioned this in your post after Trump was elected, that Russia was no longer the most irrational actor on the world stage. And now it’s come true; I’m far more worried about the fact the US President can now launch airstrikes without even pretending to care about constitutional checks and balances any more, and not even with the fig leaf that they’re doing it against Terrorists and Evil Doers and other criminals as law enforcement actions; but directly against the military assets of other nation states.

      And that national policy can be completely re-written on the fly based on the late night twittered feelings of an insecure man-child, in direct contradiction of what he was until only recently was elected claiming to believe. Who could POSSIBLY get the tone right with such an unstable actor holding the most powerful office in the world?

      If I had to make a call, I’d say Russia has actually probably played the best hand they could with this sudden re-application of Nixon’s-Mad Man-Theory of War, Only-This-Time-There’s-No-Kissenger. For all it’s immorality and shameful realpolitik, the Kremlin still remains rational, if self interested actors. Whilst diplomatically they’ve been humbled, at the same time they were also testing their own Kh-101 cruise missiles in Syria, and now they’ve literally had a direct comparison with the US Tomahawk land right in their laps. It’ll be interesting to see (in 10 years or so, when we learn the truth) if the claims of Russia not trying to defend Syria were accurate, or if more than half the Tomahawks really didn’t get to the target… and why. And what the Russians learned from that. Whilst a few more dead Syrians and some quickly replaced clapped out Su-24s isn’t going to bother them THAT much.

      What they can no longer be certain of is if that is where it’s going to end. And that’s a disaster for all of us.

      The claims to be cancelling overflight co-ordination in Syria I see as a warning to Trump about where that uncertainty could lead, the same as the deployment of S-300 and S-400 air defences were for Turkey. But Turkey, despite the disgust for Erdogan remains a relatively sane actor too, and both sides could see the sensible way out after the political theatre was forgotten. With Trump…? Who could possibly know, or be certain what was said to your face in Moscow remains true at 4am at the White House? And that scares the hell out of me far more than Putin doing his usual Putinesque things.

      Sometimes, better the devil you know really does hold up. Even if we wish the choice wasn’t between devils.

  4. Dmitry Gorenburg

     /  April 7, 2017

    My understanding is that Washington warned Moscow ahead of time, so there was no reason to activate air defenses. Additional, Russian air defenses are not located in areas that could have protected this base, as they are mostly there to protect Russian assets at Khmeimim.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 7, 2017

      Well, had the Russians wanted to protect their Syrian allies, that would have been a reason, no?

  5. How is this not all theatre? It’s not clear that this did any real damage to the Syrian military effort. As far as I can tell, there are a few pings in a runway, from a video on Roccya 1. 59 tomahawks could have ended the Syrian military had Trump wanted to use them that way. I can’t find any evidence that Assad can’t continue to act as he likes, as long as he checks in with Putin first. And there’s the rub. Can Assad really act independently without permission from Putin? If not, did Putin consent to the chemical weapons attack, or even sponsor them? And why did Russia’s air defenses sit idle? Sounds like Putin consented to the US action as well. Then Donald Trump can justify lobbing a few weapons, blow up nothing in particular, looks like a leader, and the investigation of his ties to Russia are off the front page. And, btw, wasn’t Russia the guarantor that Syria’s chemical weapons were disposed of some years ago?

  6. Trump didn’t strike on Assad regime. Trump struck at Putin. Trump is willing to prove that Putin is no friend of his. And there are no ties between them. Trump managed to take opposite Clinton approaches to all issues to win the election. If Clinton criticized Putin, Trump had to take a different position. It was not love to Putin. Giving a compliment or striking – don’t take it personally.

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