US Air Strikes on Syria: 10 Points to Consider

Associate Professor Adrian Gallagher of ECR2P-POLIS writes on America’s direct military intervention in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

On Thursday, April 6th 2017, President Trump ordered 59 US Cruise Missiles to be launched at a Syrian air base. According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, this killed six soldiers, no civilians and left the air base devastated. Unlike August 2013 (remember the House of Commons vote not to attack Assad?), this is now a much more dangerous context as there are Russians on the ground in Syria.

Short term

  1. The strikes strengthens US credibility abroad and Trump’s credibility domestically. Regarding the former, it sends a signal to the world that, unlike Obama, Trump will enforce red-lines using rapid use of force. Regarding the latter, the spotlight will now shift to US foreign policy rather than domestic miss-management of issues such as the travel ban and health care.
  1. Does this tell us something about Trump? A business empire may prepare you for many things but not the horror of war. The chemical attacks seem to have shaken the moral conscience of an immoral man (unless you think he did it for other reasons).
  1. Demonstrates Trump is willing to go it alone and conduct illegal air strikes if needed by appealing to the moral necessity to do something.
  1. Sends an immediate signal to Assad that there are limits to what he can get away with. Chemical weapons are viewed as a qualitative leap in violence that will not be tolerated.
  1. The use of chemical weapons reflects a gross error of judgement on Assad’s part. He was on the final straight toward victory. His position was stronger than ever before. There was a serious miss-calculation therefore that Trump would fulfil his previously stated position of doing nothing in Syria in order to put “America first”.

Long term.

  1. Without a long term strategy this is a short term symbolic gesture. Moreover, ad-hoc military strikes and poor planning may create more power vacuums that fundamentalists exploit.
  1. Does the U-Turn by Trump reflect a change in priority? The fight against IS will be much harder if they also fight the Syrian regime. The US has been able to fly through Syrian air-space – this could all change as Syria could conduct anti-air strikes against the US.
  1. Re-enacts the Obama policy of ‘Assad must go’ but if the US is not willing to implement this policy, it is counterproductive.
  1. Shows Trump may misunderstand the UN and NATO as such organisations help the US build a legitimate case for use of force and carry the burden of power and capacity.
  1. Shows Trump may misunderstand Russian relations with Syria. Long historical ties and inter-related military and intelligence services implies that Russia will hinder rather than help any attempt to destabilise Assad.

Going forward, any US air strike that kills Russians, or any Syrian retaliation that kills Americans, has the potential to spark a great power conflict we have not seen the likes of in a long time. In the meantime it reminds us of perhaps the most tragic fact of them all, as long as Assad kills civilians using other means, it seems he gets away with mass murder.