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America Bombed Syria — But What Does The U.S. Want?

Syria’s civil war is seven years old, and the United States still doesn’t know

Last week, President Trump instructed U.S. military leaders to withdraw from Syria. When they told him the fight against ISIS wasn’t finished, he said they should be ready pull out within six months.

Four days later, the Syrian government led by Bashar al Assad reportedly launched a chemical weapons attack against Douma — a suburb of Damascus, and one of the few remaining centers of the anti-Assad rebellion — killing about 70 and injuring hundreds more. Trump condemned the attack and promised consequences, recalling his order to launch airstrikes in response to a previous Syrian chemical attack almost exactly one year ago.

Early Saturday morning (Syria time), the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched airstrikes against targets associated with Syria’s chemical weaponry. As of this writing, the full list of targets and the extent of the damage remains unknown. Tonight’s attack is over, but the Pentagon suggested more may be coming.

At first glance, this looks like Trump’s plans were overtaken by events. But he reportedly hasn’t changed his conviction that the United States should pull out of Syria soon.

This contradiction — planning to get less involved while getting more involved — exemplifies the United States’ confused approach to Syria, which has now spanned two presidencies.

The war started seven years ago. America has intervened in various ways. But the U.S. still doesn’t know what it wants, and therefore lacks a cohesive strategy.

Many Conflicts in One

Part of the problem is Syria contains at least five overlapping conflicts. And even that’s oversimplifying.

1 — Assad v. Rebels
This is the conflict most typically referred to as the Syrian civil war — Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, fighting off threats to his rule.

Syrian government forces focused their fire on non-jihadist rebels, trying to force the world into a choice: Assad or the terrorists? Thanks to Assad’s brutal campaigns — with help from Iran and Russia — against Aleppo, rebel strongholds near Damascus, and other parts of the south and east, this conflict is mostly over.

Before Russia intervened in September 2015, it looked like Assad might fall. Saudi Arabia, the United States, and others were giving Syrian rebels money and weapons, though both backed off as the rebellion became increasingly jihadist. By early 2018, Assad had consolidated control over much of Syria’s populated areas — red in the map below — and stamped out most non-jihadist rebels.

(Al Jazeera)

Assad probably decided to launch chemical attacks to break the remaining rebels’ will. As Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, a determined insurgency can remain active for a long time, even when facing a powerful state military. Pro-Assad forces have killed many thousands of civilians with conventional means, compared to hundreds with poison gas. But the nasty, indiscriminate, taboo-violating nature of chemical weapons imposes additional psychological costs.

Douma was one of the few remaining rebel holdouts. Four days after the chemical attack, reports indicate the Syrian government has full control of the city for the first time in years.

2 — U.S.-backed coalition v. ISIS
This fight sometimes bumped up against conflict 1, but mostly stayed separate.

ISIS took advantage of the Syrian civil war, capturing equipment and territory, primarily in the northeast. In 2014, the group swept into Iraq, capturing Mosul, declaring an Islamic State, and threatening Baghdad. In response, Iran and the United States both intervened to help the Iraqi government.

The U.S. conducted airstrikes and gradually introduced about 5,000 troops to support Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces against ISIS in Iraq, along with about 2,000 in Syria supporting a predominantly Kurdish militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

American-backed forces captured Mosul in July 2017, followed by Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria, in October. By the start of 2018, the Islamic State was no more. But ISIS still exists, retaining some pockets of territory in Syria (the dark brown spots in the map below).

(BBC)

When Trump told the military to withdraw from Syria, this is the conflict he wants wrapped up.

3 — Turkey v. Kurds
The U.S.-backed coalition’s gains against ISIS created another problem. Turkey, which borders Syria to the north, has fought an on-and-off Kurdish insurgency for decades, and sees links between the Syrian Democratic Forces and rebellious Turkish Kurds. Northeastern Syria is now under Kurdish control (yellow on the map below), which the Turkish government fears could become a staging ground for attacks in Turkey.

(Al Jazeera)

In August 2016, Turkey launched a short, successful ground operation in Syria, followed by a larger incursion in January 2018. The Turkish military and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels now control the northwestern-most part of Syria (turquoise on the map above), and they’ve threatened further action.

This awkwardly places America between NATO-ally Turkey and local partner the SDF.

If the U.S. withdraws, it will be abandoning the people who spearheaded the ground fight against ISIS in Syria.

4 — Israel v. Iran
The Israelis view Syria through the lens of their adversarial relationship with Iran. Assad is an important Iranian ally, providing land routes for Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, which is based in southern Lebanon along Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw in 2006 — an impressive achievement for a militant group fighting a technologically superior state.

Israel sees Iran taking advantage of its Syria intervention to establish positions near Israel’s border. To counter this, Israel has launched numerous aerial attacks against targets in Syria associated with Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah.

(DEBKA)

For example, in February 2018, the Israelis shot down an Iranian-made drone flying over their territory, which they said was carrying explosives. In response, Israel bombed the Syrian airbase from which the drone launched. Syrian anti-aircraft defenses responded, downing an Israeli jet, which prompted Israel to launch more attacks.

This month, shortly after the Douma chemical attack, Israel launch strikes against what Israeli officials called a Syrian-Iranian military base near Homs in eastern Syria. The Iranians say at least four Iranian military advisers died in the attack, and they’ve threatened retaliation.

Israel-Iran could easily spiral, perhaps into a second Israel-Hezbollah war, or even a larger regional conflict.

5 — Russia v. United States
The Assad v. Rebels conflict is, in part, a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the war as a whole has grown into an international power competition between Russia and the United States. Under Obama, America partially pulled back from the Middle East, and Russia took the opportunity to assert itself as a regional player.

As American planes bombed ISIS in the east and Russian planes bombed rebels in the west, the two great powers set up a “deconfliction” arrangement, sharing information to avoid accidental confrontation. It’s mostly worked, but Russia has tested the boundaries.

In February 2018, mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military corporation, attacked an SDF position near Deir ez Zor, which is on the Euphrates river separating the Assad-controlled east and Kurdish-controlled west. U.S. troops rebuffed the attack and retaliated, killing some Russians (estimates range from about a dozen to over 200).

The U.S. military expressed surprise, the Russian government denied involvement, and there were no follow-on attacks. Deconfliction held.

But in response to the chemical attack in Douma, Trump tweeted accusations against Russia, and Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon promised Russia would shoot down any missiles fired at Syria. He also threatened to attack launch sites — which would include coalition ships in the Mediterranean — but the Kremlin did not issue a similar promise. It’s probably bluster.

While Russian-made defenses pose a threat to American, British, and French aircraft, Russia and Syria probably can’t shoot down the missiles. They’re too fast, too large, too maneuverable.

However, within an hour of coalition airstrikes, Syria claimed it knocked down 13 incoming missiles. Pentagon spokespeople and independent outlets expressed skepticism.

Leading up to the airstrikes, Russia jammed signals America uses to control drones over Syria. Both countries offered resolutions to the UN Security Council, which the other vetoed. And Syrian aircraft moved to Russian bases, potentially deterring the United States from attacking them by making it difficult to hit Assad’s forces without hitting Russia’s.

Now that the United States attacked Assad’s forces, there’s a danger Russia responds and the two countries end up in an escalating spiral where neither believes it can back down first. In the nightmare scenario — unlikely, but hardly impossible — the Syrian civil war grows into a region-wide conflagration: Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah v. the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

This list notes five conflicts within the Syrian civil war, many of which overlap. And that’s not including competitions between rebel groups, both jihadist and non, nor the fight between Hezbollah and al Qaeda in the southwest near Israel and Lebanon.

Syria’s a mess.

What Should America Do?

The United States doesn’t seem to know what it wants in any of the conflicts-within-the-conflict, let alone the whole thing. That’s led to a confusing strategy. As America responds to the chemical attack, and decides whether to withdraw forces, there are two goals it should consider:

1 — Punish Assad for using chemical weapons
The ban on chemical weapons use, especially against civilians, is one of the few unequivocal lines the international community has drawn. There have been few uses since World War I, with the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s attacks against Iraqi Kurds, and Assad’s attacks against Syrian rebels the notable exceptions.

Announcing the airstrikes, American president Donald Trump, French president Emmanuel Macron, and British prime minister Theresa May focused on chemical arms. All three said their countries do not seek regime change. Rather, they aim to punish Assad’s chemical weapons attacks and deter future use.

It’s true that many more civilians die from conventional attacks. But prohibitions against killing civilians in war are fuzzy. States usually argue the civilians were near legitimate military targets, making their deaths unfortunate-but-justified collateral damage.

By contrast, Syria is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans any use. Its chemical attacks were blatant violations of international law. While countries regularly violate other international legal and normative restrictions, that’s not a reason to ignore the prohibitions that are (mostly) working. There’s value in enforcing the chemical weapons taboo.

But it’s easier said than done.

In response to Assad using sarin gas in 2013, Obama threatened force — the attack crossed his “red line” — but opted against it. Instead, the U.S., Russia, and Syria reached a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Obviously, that failed.

When Assad again using sarin in 2017, Trump launched 59 missiles at a Syrian airfield. In the immediate aftermath, I criticized this as a pinprick, disconnected from any larger strategy.

Events quickly proved me right, as Syrian planes took off from the attacked airfield the very next day. With Assad using chemical weapons again in 2018 — chlorine gas this time — it’s clear America’s 2017 strikes did little.

Therefore, deterring Assad — or anyone else — from using chemical weapons in the future requires a larger response. Today’s American-French-British attack is already bigger than America’s unilateral 2017 airstrikes.

But it’s not clear the coalition can punish Assad hard enough — he obviously thinks chemical attacks have strategic value — without worsening another aspect of the Syrian civil war. A large attack against Syrian military and government targets would alter the balance in the Assad v. Rebels conflict.

The United States may have wanted Syria to transitioned to democracy, but Assad’s current position is strong. If America weakens him, it could reignite the civil war, leading Iran and Russia to escalate to protect their ally. That would cause more death and instability without changing the course of the war — unless the United States fully commits to overthrowing Assad, which would require a much larger intervention than the American public appears willing to support.

This means the best option might be another limited strike. It wouldn’t alter the dynamics of the civil war, but would at least send a signal that chemical attacks against civilians cross a line and will be met with a response. France and Britain’s participation give the retaliation more international legitimacy than a unilateral American attack.

These strikes probably will have little lasting effect. But they may be the only way to punish the chemical attack without worsening the Assad v. Rebels conflict.

2 — Stay in eastern Syria
 
Trump should reverse his request to withdraw American forces from the post-Islamic State parts of Syria. 2,000 troops is a small footprint, and they’ve endured minimal casualties. But they can make a difference.

Both Obama and Trump identified defeating the Islamic State as America’s primary interest. However, neither outlined a plan for what comes after.

Northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq have seen multiple insurgencies in recent years, mostly because Sunnis Arabs and Kurds who live there feel persecuted by Shia-dominated governments in Damascus and Baghdad. That’s why they acquiesced to ISIS — enemy of my enemy — and why, if the war restores the pre-ISIS status quo, or leaves chaos in its wake, we’ll likely see another Sunni insurgency in the near future.

Someone has to stabilize the Sunni Arab/Kurdish regions. The U.S.-backed forces are in the best position to do it. But if America withdraws, the local coalitions may fall to infighting.

Additionally, U.S. forces can get between Turkey and the Kurds, providing both with security guarantees, and discouraging them from fighting each other. It wouldn’t be easy — the Trump administration hasn’t demonstrated a talent for careful diplomacy — but the U.S. can stand by the Kurds, take Turkey’s concerns seriously, and prevent another Islamic State.

As I laid out previously, the best endgame is a semi-autonomous region under the auspices of Damascus and Baghdad.

No one would love it, but everyone gets something:

  • Assad (and Iran) restore Syrian sovereignty, but have to give up some control.
  • Russia gets a foothold in the Middle East, but does not dominate all of Syria.
  • The Kurds and Sunni Arabs get greater political control, but not independence.
  • Turkey has to live with more Kurdish control to its south, but retains its buffer in Syria’s northwest, and can rely on a sustained American commitment to discourage cross-border attacks.
  • ISIS gets nothing, and everyone else agrees to prevent its return.

But even if the U.S. does not follow this plan, it should figure out what it wants and outline a long-term Syria strategy.

The international airstrikes punishing Assad for attacking civilians with chemical weapons provide an opportunity to shape Syria’s future without getting sucked into the civil war. Don’t waste it.

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