The Buzz

(Withholding) Judgment of the U.S. Missile Strike on Syria

This analyst, like many Syria watchers, is conflicted by the decision by the Trump administration to launch a missile strike on Syrian military targets in response to the regime’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. On the one hand, any feeling person would welcome the Syrian regime being constrained from future chemical weapons use against its own people. On the other hand, it is unclear the missile strike will achieve that outcome and could invite unintended consequences that risk U.S. reputation, blood, and treasure.

The crux of the problem for an analyst is that the wisdom of the strike is dependent upon future outcomes that are presently unknowable. So rather than pass judgment, analysts would do better to establish the benchmarks by which they will assess this foreign policy decision once the facts are in. The remainder of this article does just that, inviting the reader to consider what she should be watching for.

Identifying Goals and Benchmarks

Goal #1, Deter Future Chemical Weapons Attacks: The stated goal of the missile attack was to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future use of chemical weapons. As noted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Assad was effectively “normalizing the use of chemical weapons,” which could open the door to this tactic being “adopted by others.” Therefore, “it’s important that…the international community make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms.”

If we take the secretary’s explanation at face value, then the metric for judging the success of the operation is fairly straightforward. Should Assad refrain from further use of chemical weapons—even if he continues to use other abhorrent tactics including barrel bombs and indiscriminate artillery attacks—then the action was successful in that the change in behavior sought would be realized.

Critics of that logic will say that Assad has other means to kill his people, and they would be right. The regime also has conventional munitions at its disposal including those it has jerry-rigged for added lethality. However, to argue that deterring chemical weapons attacks won’t defang Assad misses the point. Deterring states from using chemical weapons, and particularly chemicals as deadly as sarin, which was the suspected agent in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, is a worthy policy goal even if its stops short of ending other forms of violence against civilians. 

A more ambiguous outcome would be if the regime’s chemical attacks and the U.S. punitive responses develop into a cycle in which the regime uses the weapon only to be punished and the tit for tat exchanges continue. Then the U.S. runs the risk of looking feckless even as it deploys military might. The situation would be broadly analogous to the “cheat and retreat” era of 1990s Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein violated agreements (e.g. no fly zones, denying access to weapons inspectors) only to be punished by the U.S.-led coalition, but insufficiently to deter the next violation. The result could be a drawn out exchange that would eventually degrade U.S. military readiness for other contingencies, and like in the Iraq case, could eventually create schisms within the Western coalition between states that support punitive actions and those that do not. 

A failed outcome would be if the regime responds to the attack by gradually ramping up its use of proscribed weapons, perhaps starting with less lethal chemical weapons than sarin, and deploying them in smaller scale attacks, until the regime is confident it has eroded the red line enough to risk future sarin attacks. Often referred to by the short hand “salami tactics,” Assad would be eroding the norm one teensy slice at a time and waiting to see if Washington would pull the trigger. Should the administration lack the commitment to respond to this chemical weapons use, then the policy would have failed to protect the international norm and the U.S. could also suffer reputational costs having established a threat it failed to execute.  

Goal #2, Strengthen U.S. Bargaining Position: It is also worth considering if the Trump administration’s goal in launching the missile strike could have been more expansive, namely, to strengthen the U.S. bargaining position in future Syria negotiations. The specific logic being that such strikes would drive a wedge between Damascus and Moscow, something hinted at in Secretary Tillerson’s remarks in which he refused to call Russia “complicit” in the chemical attack, even though its forces were present at Shayrat airfield during the time the regime prepared the attack against Khan Sheikhoun. The Trump administration could also be subscribing to the logic that only by demonstrating direct U.S. military force against the Syrian regime will the U.S. have the leverage to ask for concessions at the negotiating table, including an eventual transition away from Assad’s rule.