MESOPOTAMIA NEWS TODAYS RELEVANT ANALYSIS : America’s Interests in Syria Beyond Deterring Chemical Weapons Use

By Jennifer Cafarella – Institute for the study of war
12 April 2018 – Key Takeaway: President Donald Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes in Syria to deter future use of chemical weapons. The strikes would add credibility to American deterrence efforts worldwide by affirming American resolve to uphold stated “red lines”. They would fall short of halting the pro-Bashar al Assad regime war effort, however. The U.S. must do more in Syria to affect the war’s outcome, and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy. Vital American interests in Syria include: defeating al Qaeda and ISIS and replacing them with a viable and legitimate alternative; expelling Iranian military and proxy forces; limiting Iranian influence; facilitating the emergence of Sunni Arab armed forces and governing structures; bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end that allows refugees to return; and de-escalating great power and regional competition in Syria that risks regional war and sets conditions for a great-power conflict.

President Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes against Syrian regime military targets in coming days in order to punish and deter chemical weapons use. American and British intelligence assessments have determined that the Assad regime is responsible for a chemical attack using a nerve agent against an opposition enclave in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on April 7, 2018. President Trump first authorized a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in April 2017 after Syrian President Bashar al Assad conducted a similar attack using sarin gas on an opposition-held town. President Trump has reiterated his commitment to deterring future use and is now considering his military options.

A new round of strikes will most likely impose costs and degrade the regime’s capability to launch such attacks by damaging Assad’s remaining air force. President Trump’s 2017 strike destroyed twenty percent of Assad’s air force. President Trump may attempt to destroy Assad’s remaining air capabilities in addition to destroying his chemical weapons facilities. He may also strike targets that impose costs on Iran and Russia. He has publicly stated his intent to hold them accountable for supporting Assad’s crimes. Russian and Iranian forces collocate on many bases across Syria.

The strikes will reaffirm President Trump’s commitment to deterring chemical weapons use but will not solve the Syria problem. They are unlikely to alter the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to slaughter his rebelling population with conventional munitions. They will not weaken Russian and Iranian resolve to continue supporting Assad, even if they destroy Assad’s air force. Alone, tactical military action is not a strategy.

The U.S. must do more and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy and remove the constraints on American action in Syria that he inherited from President Obama.

The U.S. has vital national security interests in Syria beyond deterring chemical weapons use. These include:

  1. Defeating al Qaeda, as well as ISIS, and facilitating the emergence of a viable and legitimate Sunni Arab leadership that will prevent the re-emergence of jihadist actors.
  2. Expelling Iranian military forces and most of Iran’s proxy forces from Syria in order to secure American allies and partners in the region, to deny Iran access to Syrian economic resources, to reduce the regional sectarian conflict that is driving Sunni jihadist recruitment, and to constrain Russia’s ability to project force through Iranian basing;
  3. Limiting Iranian influence over the Syrian government and territory;
  4. Facilitating the emergence of a Sunni Arab armed force and governance structures that are: seen as legitimate by the Sunni Arab communities in Syria; willing and able to expel ISIS and al Qaeda and keep them out; and willing and able to serve as interlocutors for Syria’s rebelling Sunni community in negotiations with the pro-regime Alawite community and others;
  5. Bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end in a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sides that allows refugees to return in a manner that ensures jihadist actors do not gain sanctuary within a resettled and insecure population; and
  6. De-escalating the competition among Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf States that risks regional war and is setting conditions for a great-power conflict in the Middle East.

President Trump faces no easy decisions in Syria. Desirable options vanished over the eight years of vicious civil war. The cost and difficulty of acting in Syria will only continue to grow the longer the US tries to avoid these problems, however. The war continues to escalate. Russia, Iran, Assad, and Turkey are all attacking American forces and local partners in Syria. Israel and Iran are in an escalation pattern that could quickly become a regional war. The withdrawal of America’s limited forces in Syria would create a vacuum that leads to further escalation or enables American adversaries to grow stronger.

The growing international consensus behind striking Assad for chemical weapons use and holding his backers accountable provides an opportunity. President Trump should assert the leadership that the Obama administration shied away from and chart a new way forward in Syria.

Posted by Institute for the Study of War