It has been a disturbing few days. On Tuesday 4 April, Syrian aircraft allegedly used nerve gas against civilians. On Thursday 6, the US responded by attacking Syrian forces for the first time. On Friday 7, there was a truck attack in central Stockholm, the city’s first terror incident since December 2010. On Saturday 8, a US naval task force set out for northeast Asia to strengthen US sea power near the Korean peninsula. A small bomb was discovered in Oslo. On Sunday 9, nearly 50 people died from bomb attacks at two churches in the Nile delta.
Amid the uncertainties of the time, it’s worth asking if the US is about to get engaged in armed conflict on two fronts.
The cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase also used by Russian forces brings added complications into an already complex, enduring, multi-fronted war. Despite what you hear from many critics of the Obama administration’s policy on Syria, the US is already engaged in Syria with air power and special forces (as are both France and the UK). But that action is primarily against Islamic State; the cruise missile strike was the first time the US has taken on the Syrian government.
Likewise, ramping up the forces arrayed against North Korea in response to the evident determination of the government of Kim Jong-un to deploy both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles adds to an already profound confrontation in northeast Asia.
As yet we do not know if the cruise missile strike is a one-off action, perhaps a display of strength and resolve, or the first step in something bigger. As yet we do not know if US naval power will be used in action against North Korea.
In both cases, there are open, unanswered what-comes-next questions – what is the strategic goal, is it realistic, are the resources and political support needed to sustain it, and what contingencies are covered in the strategy?
In both cases, it seems likely that the politics of the decisions count more for President Trump than the operational strategic issues.
At any rate, to put it differently, for Trump, the advantages lie in the politics while the dangers lie in the strategy.
Syria: The target for the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched on 6 April was the Syrian airbase of al-Shayrat, about 150 kilometres northeast of Damascus and not far from the city of Homs. It is believed to be the base from which Syrian aircraft took off to use chemical weapons (CW) – presumably (though not yet proven) the nerve gas sarin – against the town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province in northern Syria, killing nearly 90 people according to anti-government groups quoted by the BBC.
North Korea: There have been at least four North Korean missile tests so far this year. There was one in February, then two in March. In one March test, three out of four missiles launched came down in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The other March test seemingly failed, as did the fourth in April. In response to the April test, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tersely and weightily remarked, “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
So far, going beyond comment has only meant making a show of force. But it is an impressive show. The strike force sailed from Singapore on Saturday. It is organised around an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, which carries 60 aircraft (and 5,000 personnel), accompanied by one missile-firing cruiser and two missile-firing destroyers. It adds to other naval units in the area and a permanent US military presence in South Korea of some 28,500 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel.
Initial political reactions to the US strike on Syria were largely predictable.The Western allies lined up to support it, while Russia and Iran castigated it, and China’s stance was carefully calibrated to take its distance without directly criticising. Sweden was among those to question the legality of the US strike.
In the United States, senior Democrats joined Republicans in backing the decision to take action. Hillary Clinton voiced her support for attacking Syria’s airfields before the attack was launched. Others are less convinced and informed opinion is deeply divided.
On Syria, we have been here before
This is not the first time CW have been used in Syria, of course. Following an even worse incident in August 2013 in a Damascus suburb – estimates of the death toll varied from about 300 to over 1700 – the US came close to but veered away from missile strikes. My view at the time was that the case for missile strikes was weak. I expressed it in a blog post and in this interview and my basic opinion has not changed :
Today, the desired outcome and strategy for getting to it are even more unclear than in 2013, largely because of the Russian presence. The stated aim then and now is limited to deterring the use of nerve gas. The likelihood that the action will be both so effective and so precise is even lower today than in 2013. The missile strike has already encouraged the expectation of a wider intervention, even though the American appetite for joining in all-out war in Syria must be very dubious. And the track record of limited strikes having a deterrent effect has been poor.
Back in 2013, Donald Trump opposed striking at Syria in his own particular style, as his tweets of the time, recovered by many another tweeter, remind us:
The political calculus
Of course, changing your mind, even about whether to consult Congress, is not always a bad thing. But in this case the change has come very fast. Only a week before authorising the missile strike, President Trump apparently authorised press spokesperson Sean Spicer to accept the political reality of Assad’s position as President. Trump’s own version of his change of mind is actually that it was a change of heart caused by the sight of children suffering from the effects of nerve gas.
Those who like to analyse political manoeuvring, however, can see another version, in which political calculation looms large. One analysis sets aside the strategic and military operational issues and depicts it as a political masterstroke. The logic is simple: the US foreign policy establishment dislikes and distrusts Trump’s approach to foreign policy but it has included fierce critics of Obama for what he did and didn’t do about Syria and now therefore, for a while at least, they are on-side with Trump.
There is also an international dimension. The missile strike told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he cannot have Syria to himself, yet did so without hitting Russian forces; indeed, they were reportedly warned of the attack beforehand. Further, the strike also sends a message to North Korea. There is some basis for thinking that there’s also a message for China, encouraging it to restrain North Korea’s ambitions for fear of US military action. And a carrier strike group is then deployed to emphasise the point – another move that will show strength, earn a lot of words in response, but without risk of any actual military counter-moves.
In the light of all this, it would seem, the timing of the Syrian nerve gas attack on Khan Sheikhun was fortuitous for Trump. It came just before his meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, thus permitting that message to be driven home. It was also just before the G7 foreign ministers meeting, so there could be a display of unity against Syria, Russia, Iran and North Korea all at once. After that Secretary of State Tillerson was off to Moscow, so he could both reinforce the message and at the same time nuance it, perhaps, with readiness to do business with Russia over Syria – but on new terms.
It all seems so neat. Following this line of thought, there is hardly any way an opportunist like Trump could have turned down the chance to launch missiles at Syria.
The strategic calculus
Except it’s not so neat. It never is. First off, the politics may be clever but what is the policy? Tuesday’s Guardian traces five different policies in two weeks. In the most recent change, the long-standing Syrian tactic of using “barrel bombs” on civilian areas has become a newly announced “red line”. This came from spokesperson Sean Spicer and shortly after he tried to “clarify” it. That’s normally polite-speak for “withdraw” but with the Trump administration, so far at any rate, you never know.
If the policy is unclear and changeable, what does that do for the strategy? It is all very well to send a message and show resolve but what if the adversary sticks his fingers in his ears and chants la-la-la? What if he decides to test the depth of resolve you have displayed?
As well as strong words, Russia’s response has been to close the communications line through which Russian and US air forces over Syria avoid getting in each other’s way (see below for update). What if Assad follows up by trying to bring down a US aircraft or ordering a strike against US special forces (there are at least 500 now in Syria)? Or what if there is an accidental mid-air collision? Or unplanned air-to-air combat?
What if North Korea takes a look at the carrier group as it arrives off the Korean peninsula and makes a quick strike against a South Korean naval asset, as it has done before? Is there an option available in that contingency apart from counter-escalation? If armed force is used, where does it stop?
Apart from the escalation spiral, there are other risks. The message that the cruise missile strike on Syria sends to North Korea is, “Stop!” But by the time it arrives, it could be interpreted as, “Hurry up!” That is, the warning might work as an incentive. An intended threat to prevent further development of missiles and nuclear weapons may tell the North Korean government that moving ahead faster is the only way to be secure.
More subtly, if the the Trump team, having got itself taken seriously by the key players in Syria, sits down to talk in a business-like way with Russia over the future of that country, the message to North Korea might turn out to be, “Acting tough comes before discussing compromise.” And since that is what North Korea wants from the US, the result of all that messaging will be zero influence on its behaviour. A show of strength will then start to look like something very different.
Plenty of commentators are prepared to offer praise to President Trump, some of it highly conditional, some pretty much unreserved, for doing something about Syria and North Korea. But the discussion is proceeding without a very clear sense of what that “something” really is. Till that clarifies, the case for tough action has not been made.
UPDATE: As of 13 April it seems unclear whether the “hotline” communication between Russia and the US has been restored but US officials state that there is a line of communication for “deconflicting” air space over Syria to avoid accidental encounters and collisions.