The Trump administration will be making a decision on how to respond to an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syria town of Douma within the next forty-eight hours.
President Donald Trump said that the United States is currently examining the evidence and that military force remains an option. Trump promised a response even if his administration decides that Russia is responsible.
Asked if Russia bears responsibility for the alleged chemical attack, Trump said that the Kremlin might be culpable. “He [Russian President Vladimir Putin] may. Yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough. Very tough,” Trump said during a meeting of his cabinet on April 9. “Everybody is going to pay a price. He will. Everybody will.”
Trump said it will take roughly twenty-four hours for the United States to determine which party was responsible for the alleged chemical attack. “If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out and we’ll know the answers quite soon,” Trump said. “So we’re looking at that very, very strongly and very seriously.”
Trump noted that both the Russians and Syrians deny that there was such an attack. “They’re saying they’re not,” Trump said. “But to me, there’s not much of a doubt, but the generals will figure it out probably over the next 24 hours.”
Further, asked directly if military force is on the table as an option, Trump said that all options are on the table. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump said.
Who is to Blame?
Trump’s comments slightly softened his earlier tweets on April 8 where he directly blamed Russia, Syria and Iran for the alleged chemical attack. “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world,” Trump had tweeted. “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price... ....to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Trump further asserted that had President Barack Obama launched a campaign against the Syrian regime in August 2012—when Damascus launched an earlier chemical attack against Syrian rebels—the current situation in Syria would have been averted. “If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” Trump tweeted.
Right now it is unclear exactly who was responsible for the chemical attack in Douma, if, indeed, there was one. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) claimed that Douma came under what appears to have to been a chemical weapons attack on Saturday, April 7, at 19:45 local time. “More than 500 cases -the majority of whom are women and children- were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent,” SAMS said. “Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.”
SAMS does not suggest which party was responsible for the attack. Instead, the organization has called for an investigation—and for an international intervention. “SAMS and the Syrian Civil Defense demand an immediate cease-fire in the city of Douma and the entry of international investigation teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to investigate this heinous chemical attack,” SAMS said. “SAMS, along with the Syrian Civil Defense call for the immediate intervention of the international community to enforce international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and to ensure the protection of medical and humanitarian facilities to enable them to continue their lifesaving work.”
However, there has been no independent verification of the SAMS report—though the U.S. State Department believes the report is credible. The Kremlin, for one, rejects the very notion that there was a chemical attack on Douma. Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that Russian forces, together with the Red Crescent organization, had found no evidence of a chemical attack. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent... and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians," Lavrov said.
The Russians are asserting that evidence is being manufactured to essentially frame the Syrian government for the chemical attack. “False information is being planted about the alleged use of chlorine and other toxic agents by the Syrian government forces,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The latest fake news about a chemical attack on Douma was reported yesterday. These reports are again referenced to the notorious White Helmets, which have been proved more than once to be working hand in glove with the terrorists, as well as to other pseudo-humanitarian organisations headquartered in the UK and the US.”
Indeed, the Russians are asserting that the alleged use of chemical weapons is a provocation by “those who are not interested in the early elimination of one of the last seats of terrorism in Syria and in a genuine political settlement” to undermine the Assad regime. “We recently warned of the possibility of such dangerous provocations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “The goal of these absolutely unsubstantiated lies is to protect the terrorists and the irreconcilable radical opposition that has rejected a political settlement, as well as to justify the possible use of force by external actors.”
What is to be done?
Hawkish voices in the United States—including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Susan Collins—are already calling for a military intervention in Syria. Those are just a few among the voices calling on Trump to set aside his stated desire for American forces to leave that war-torn nation once the ISIS terrorist group has been eliminated. Indeed, Trump said that he is reconsidering his position and will make a decision shortly. “We’re going to make a decision on all of that, in particular Syria,” Trump said. “We’ll be making that decision very quickly, probably by the end of today. But we cannot allow atrocities like that. Cannot allow it.”
But what military options exist for Washington in Syria? “I don't rule out anything right now," U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the Pentagon. "The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all chemical weapons, and so working with our allies and partners from NATO to Qatar and elsewhere we are going to address this issue."
The basic problem for the United States is that there are multiple nations’ forces operating in close proximity to each other in the chaos and confusion of Syria—including Russian forces. That means that unless Washington is willing to risk a major war with Moscow—one that could escalate out of control—American military personnel will have to be very careful not to hit uniformed Russian forces.
Moscow has reiterated that Russia will retaliate if their forces are struck. “We have to say once again that military interference in Syria, where Russian forces have been deployed at the request of the legitimate government, under contrived and false pretexts is absolutely unacceptable and can lead to very grave consequences,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The Foreign Ministry statement reinforces a recent declaration by the Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov. “If lives of the Russian officers are threatened, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation will retaliate against missile and launch systems,” Gerasimov said on March 13.
Gerasimov, as both American and Russian-based experts have noted, is not prone to bluffing and strictly follows directives from Putin. “When the Russian chief of the general staff says something, you have to listen because someone told him to say it,” Center for Naval Analyses senior research scientist Michael Kofman said recently at the Center for the National Interest.
America’s Military Options
Mattis did not directly answer reporters’ questions on how the United States could hit Syrian chemical weapons depots, but the bottom line for Washington is that it would have to be exceedingly careful to avoid hitting Russian forces. However, in order to prevent the Russians from tipping off their Syrian allies, the United States might have to refrain from using the deconfliction line that is used to ensure the two great powers do not come into unintentional military conflict.
“I’m very sure that great care would be taken to strike appropriate targets. There are a number of capabilities that could be used to strike with precision, including cruise missiles that can be air-launched and sea-launched, and possibly penetrating combat aircraft,” Mark Gunzinger, a former U.S. Air Force B-52 pilot and airpower analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, told the National Interest. “In addition to target proximity to sensitive areas, the exact platform and weapons mix used for a strike (or strikes) would depend on factors such as the nature of the targets, their ‘hardness,’ mobility, etc.”
That could mean that the United States uses long-range precision guided strike assets, such as the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles or the U.S. Air Force’s B-52-launched AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM), to hit such targets deep inside Syria—reducing risk to aircrews from surface-to-air missiles. Moreover, because cruise missiles fly at extremely low altitude using the terrain to mask their approach from ground radars, Russia’s extremely capable air defenses, such as the S-400 and S-300V4 systems deployed in Syria, would not be able to engage incoming cruise missile unless they were under direct attack. Essentially, while Russian air defense systems provide area air defense coverage against medium or high altitude threats, they are effectively point defense weapons when defending against cruise missiles.
The United States could also use stealth aircraft, such as the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, to hit targets in Syria. While the Russians may well have the capability to detect those aircraft, Moscow does not likely have the means to develop a “weapons quality” track to engage those jets with either the S-300V4 or the S-400. The advantage of using a manned stealth aircraft is that those aircraft carry high-resolution sensors and carry a variety of weapons—which meas a targeteer can match an appropriate weapon to an appropriate target using real time data coming from the jet’s sensors.
“The particular strike package depends on a variety of factors that involve the desired effects to be accomplished,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief who has also designed several air campaigns, told the National Interest. “Threats enroute and in the target area; timing, i.e. how rapidly does the President want to respond as that will determine appropriate forces available to respond inside that timeline; target proximity to non-combatants and considerations of collateral damage; specific weapons effects desired that will drive weapon options, are among many of the factors that go into force package and attack design.”
If Russia’s forces are hit by an American or allied air strike, Moscow will respond with force. The Kremlin is not bluffing, analysts say. “If Russian forces are attacked then we will have a war,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, told the National Interest.
Russian forces have the ability to strike back at U.S. and allied bases—not only in the Middle East but also in Europe. As Gerasimov had noted, the Russians would not necessarily confine their response to an attack on their forces to just Syria, they would strike at the launch platforms and their bases of origin. Long range precision guided weapons such as the ship and submarine based Kalibr cruise missile and the X-101 air-launched cruise missile—which can be carried onboard the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers—afford Moscow the ability to strike U.S. bases around the region. That could be cause for concern for American allies, which might host U.S. strike aircraft that might engage Russian targets.
The problem with starting a war with another nuclear-armed great power is that such conflicts inevitably escalate—and escalate out of control. Indeed, a conflict between Russia and the United States is likely to do so. “It will most likely escalate out of control,” Kashin said.
Israel Adds to the Confusion
Another wild card is Israel and other regional powers involved in Syria. The Russians recently accused Israel of launching an airstrike on the Syrian regime’s T-4 airbase. “On April 9, in the period between 3.25 a.m. and 3.53 a.m. Moscow Time two F-15 aircraft of Israel’s Air Force delivered a strike with eight guided missiles on the T-4 airfield without entering Syria’s airspace from Lebanon’s territory," the Russian defense ministry said according to TASS.
The Russians claim that Syrian air defenses destroyed five of the Israeli missiles while the remaining three weapons hit their target—which is dubious given the state of Syria’s air defenses. TASS reported that there were no Russian advisers among the casualties, however it is reported that at least fourteen pro-regime forces, including some number of Iranian personnel, were killed. Thus, the potential for an unintentional clash—between multiple powers—is high.
Indeed, the Pentagon was forced earlier to deny that American forces were involved. “At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria. However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable," the Defense Department said.
A Great Power Confrontation
Depending on Trump’s decisions over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the world may be faced with the most dangerous great-power confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The outcome could either be an unmitigated disaster, where there is an open war between Russia and the United States, or it might turn out to be a learning experience that averts future crises.
The Washington national security community has largely forgotten the Cold War concepts of nuclear deterrence and managing confrontations with a nuclear-armed rival. Over the past twenty-five years or so, Washington has become accustomed to a world where there are no great-power challengers and the only real threat comes from terrorism.
“People have sophomoric views on great power confrontation here,” Kofman said. “In fact a lot of people don’t even understand nuclear strategy and deterrence all that well anymore and the escalatory dynamics. And you can tell by the conversations—we have been in the terrorism/counterinsurgency game for way too long and people don’t understand what they are playing with at senior levels. I hear it all the time. That’s all a recipe for a 1950-1960s type interaction with another great power.”
Indeed, it might take a new version of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for the American foreign policy establishment to grasp how dangerous a confrontation with a rival nuclear-armed great power can be. “I hate to say it, but it might be a good thing,” Kofman said. “I actually think it might be a good thing to have that crisis for everyone to grow up.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Wikimedia Commons