The focus this week was on the American missile attack on Syria. This week, we have focused on think tank papers on the attack, what it means, and where the US should do next. They range from condemnation because the attack was unconstitutional to praise and suggestions that more should be done militarily.
The Monitor analysis looks at US-Russian relations in light of this attack. We look at the attack from Putin and Russia’s eyes. Then we look at the attack from Trump and America’s eyes.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS looks at the aftermath of the Syrian missile attack. They note, “The U.S. action may also have a broader impact in limiting Assad’s use of state terrorism against his own people. The United States has focused far too much on ISIS and extremist violence by non-state actors. State terrorism by a secular authoritarian like Assad is no better than violent religious extremism by a non-state actors, and the impact of chemical weapons and barrel bombs have shown that state terrorism can be, in fact, far worse. The failure to act earlier seems to have sent the worst possible message. Assad seems to have felt that he was secure enough with Russian aid, and after U.S. statements that seemed to back away from seeking to push him out of power, to use even the worst forms of terror against the Syrian rebels…The U.S. cruise missile strikes have now made it clear that Assad can still be a major political target, that his use of the worst form of a terror weapon can result in retaliatory strikes that are more costly than Assad’s continuing use of chemical weapons is worth. They have also made it tangibly clear that neither the United States nor the world will ignore Syrian civilian suffering or will take it for granted.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute also looks at the missile attack. They note, “As things stand, however, the administration chose the least aggressive, most risk-averse military option put before it, so it is not clear how loud and strong a message it has sent. That is why a new cycle of taunt and repercussion may ensue, with unpredictable consequences. But what were the other two options the President heard from his military advisers? I don’t know, of course, nor does anyone not privy to the discussions. But I can guess. One, now favored aloud by Senators McCain and Graham, would be to smash the Syrian Air Force in its entirety, so that no more attacks of the sort we saw this past Tuesday can again be mounted…But to achieve that aim would require aircraft, not cruise missiles. We would have to suppress Syrian air defenses first to do that, and we might find the deconfliction channel with the Russians not nearly clear enough to avoid direct engagement with them. That would really get us into a war, slippery slope and all, and possibly not just with the Syrians in Syria.”
The Institute for the Study of War sees the American missile attack on Syria as an opportunity to expand its options in Syria. They observed, “Regional actors responded as if a wider American reorientation against Assad is possible. Traditional U.S. partners in the region like Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the strike. Turkey also praised the strike and called for additional U.S. action against the Assad regime. These reactions indicate that the strike created an opportunity for President Trump to repair America’s relationships with traditional partners, which had begun to reorient toward Russia or to act unilaterally in dangerous ways in the absence of American leadership. European states under Russian pressure also supported the strike, indicating that the U.S. can still shape European policies toward Syria. President Trump may have an opportunity to leverage European support for counter-Assad measures to reengage Europe on the need to confront Russia in Syria.”
The Washington Institute looks at the historical lessons and implications of the missile attack on Syria. They conclude, “Experience indicates that Assad will likely continue defying the international community and challenging the CW redline, and that additional strikes may be necessary to deter him from doing so. Finally, now that it has taken direct military action against Assad, the United States should keep in mind that its best hope for an exit strategy that advances its interests in Syria (including the fight against the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadist groups) is by fostering the creation of effective non-Salafist rebel forces that can draw Sunnis away from the extremists and apply sustained military pressure on the Assad regime. Only this will ensure that ceasefires are honored and major new refugee flows are averted.”
The Cato Institute questions the “humanitarian” reason for the American missile strike on Syria. They note, “The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, but so is bombing another country in violation of the UN Charter. Put simply, Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian regime has no legal authority and little chance of actually mitigating the suffering of Syrians caught in the civil war. In fact, there is no U.S. military solution to the Syrian conflict. The options that do exist risk exacerbating regional insecurity and humanitarian strife and would require a massive commitment in blood and treasure that the American people seem unprepared to tolerate.”
The Carnegie Endowment says that a Syrian political settlement must focus on refugees. They note, “A refugee-focused approach would protect refugees and internally displaced persons, irrespective of who is in power, and would introduce mechanisms to address challenges to social cohesion at the local level. Such an approach would rest on three key tenets: (1) the political settlement takes communal dynamics into account and actively addresses them, (2) returning populations are guaranteed security, and (3) a transitional justice mechanism is established to provide accountability and economic justice. While these may seem aspirational given the difficulties of achieving a just political settlement, without them, the prospects of a lasting peace are relatively grim.”
The CSIS says China will benefit more from Trump than Russia. They note, “It is no secret that China desires even more global influence, a pursuit that, to a certain extent, has been checked by U.S. global leadership. Until now. Candidate Trump antagonized China during the campaign and has made a habit of eschewing the delicate geopolitical order since his election. Despite some not-so-subtle military hint and the requisite strong words of rebuke from state-run media outlets, China is figuring out how to influence an unpredictable new administration. They have already realized that Jared Kushner is, among myriad other things, the gatekeeper to Mar-a-Lago and the Trump agenda. Chinese diplomats, business people, and party officials (not to mention spies), are on the lookout for ways to capitalize on the Trump administration’s inexperience and President Trump’s own oversimplified, “us vs. them,” transactional world view.”
The Cato Institute looks at the weak legal pretext for Trump’s attack on Syria. They note, “That the strike was “limited,” and not the opening salvo in a full-scale war doesn’t make a constitutional difference. If it did, leading war powers scholar Michael Ramsey asks, then “why did virtually everyone in the immediate post-ratification era think that limited naval warfare, as against France in the Quasi-War, required Congress’ approval?” That included the bellicose, pro-executive Hamilton, who acknowledged that for President Adams to go beyond defensive acts protecting American shipping would “fall under the idea of reprisals & requires the sanction of that Department which is to declare or make war.” Our first president even doubted his authority to take unilateral action against hostile Indian tribes, writing that “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”
Why Can’t America Govern Itself?
Problems with Republicans, Democrats, the White House and Congress.
US – Russian Relations on the Rocks over Syria
Conventional wisdom held that a Trump presidency would mean closer relations with Russia and possibly some agreement between the two nations on how to resolve the Syrian civil war.
Obviously, conventional wisdom was wrong. Last week, Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase that allegedly had been involved in a chemical weapons attack on rebels.
Although the facts on the chemical attack are quite murky, the results were clear. Just days before, Secretary of State Tillerson had made it clear that the US wasn’t going to push for the removal of Syrian President Assad. After the chemical attack, he called for his removal and went to Moscow this week with the demand that Russia stop supporting the Syrian president.
The question on everyone’s mind is the risk of a wider conflict – something not needed given the escalating tensions in regard to China and North Korea.
The Russian View
The Russian response was clearly seen when SoS Tillerson arrived in Moscow this week. Russian foreign minister Lavrov greeted Tillerson with unusually icy remarks, denouncing the missile strike on Syria as illegal and accusing Washington of behaving unpredictably.
According to Reuters, Lavrov said that “I won’t hide the fact that we have a lot of questions, taking into account the extremely ambiguous and sometimes contradictory ideas which have been expressed in Washington across the whole spectrum of bilateral and multilateral affairs. And of course, that’s not to mention that apart from the statements, we observed very recently the extremely worrying actions, when an illegal attack against Syria was undertaken.”
At the same time, Putin took to Russian television. Putin said that if Donald Trump had intended to bring about a thaw in US relations with Russia, he has failed to see this intention through.
“One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated.”
The harsh rhetoric is understandable since it is Russia and Putin that took the biggest hit with the American missile attack.
Since 2008, Russia has dramatically improved its position in the Middle East. As Obama retreat from interventionist policies, Russia strengthened its relations with Iran and Syria. And, as the “Arab Spring” roiled the region, American allies saw Russia as a more stalwart presence in the region than the US. The result was that US allies like Egypt and Israel started looking more towards Moscow than Washington.
The centerpiece of the Russian initiative was Syria. A year and a half ago, Syria’s President Assad was looking to get more support as Syrian forces were facing more aggressions from rebels. Today, Syria’s government is on the offensive and Assad’s position as Syrian president looks secure. The regime’s heartland and the Russian bases are now protected from rebel offensives, and rebels bases have been progressively eliminated. While the northern and eastern parts of Syria still are unsecure, the populated western part of Syria are more firmly in Assad’s hands.
The Russian air war has been impressive. It has shown that its Air Force is a serious tool of foreign policy and has carried out a year and half long military air offensive at the end of a long logistical tail. It has also shown that its weapons are effective – at least in a Third World theater of operations.
The Russian participation in the war has also had an impact on Russian military sales. The Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense systems have been sold to both Syria and Iran. And, although some Russian weapons systems like their aircraft carrier and cruise missiles failed to work well in combat, it didn’t strategically hurt Russia or Syria.
The Trump missile attack showed that the US was once again a major player in the Middle East. It was also intended to show American allies that the US could be counted upon again. It also meant to show American adversaries like Iran that they too were on notice.
This has left Putin in a tough position. He can’t be seen as backing down to US pressure. Yet, the US has more assets that it can rely upon in the region. Putin knows well that the US has more aircraft carriers than Russia has. And US aircraft carriers work much better.
Putin will support Syrian government diplomatically and militarily. He will also treat the Trump Administration in a chilly manner. However, his options are limited. And, in the end, US-Russian relations extend beyond Syria. That’s one reason why Putin finally met Tillerson on Wednesday.
Although the public reception of SoS Tillerson was frosty enough to please President Assad, undoubtedly, Tillerson brought a private message to Putin from Trump. That message will state that the major US goal is not to oust Assad, but to eliminate ISIS. Trump will encourage the Russians to try to pressure President Assad in so that there will be no more pressure from neo-conservatives to escalate efforts to oust Assad.
The US View
Although there are many questions about the chemical weapons incident, the attack was a boon for Trump and the United States. Trump’s quick reaction to the chemical weapons incident boosted his popularity with the American public and dampened the charges that he was in league with Putin and Russia.
The missile attack also meant to strengthened America’s reputation. Where the Obama administration was seen as weak and vacillating, the strong Trump response showed that the US was once again willing to take up a leadership role.
The attack also had benefits to U.S. beyond the Middle East. It sent a strong message to China, Iran, and North Korea.
The message was even stronger as the missile attack came as Chinese premier Xi was having dinner with Trump.
The missile strike also had political benefits domestically. Republican neocons praised Trump, along with the Democratic leadership.
However, it is important to remember that this attack will not impact long range foreign policy. Syrian hawks like Senator John McCain will not be able to press Trump into a full scale support for Syrian rebels. The Trump Administration will not have any interest in expanding its military footprint in Syria or establishing “No fly zones.”
In an interview with the Fox Business Network, Trump said he was not planning to order U.S. forces into Syria, but that he had to respond to the images of dead children poisoned in the gas attack. “We’re not going into Syria,” he said in excerpts of the interview on the station’s website. “But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons … and see these beautiful kids that are dead in their father’s arms, or you see kids gasping for life … when you see that, I immediately called (Defense Secretary) General Mattis.”
The continuity of policy towards Syria was reiterated by SecDef Mattis this week. He claimed that the strike against al-Shayrat airfield was tied specifically to Damascus’ decision to use chemical weapons and did not indicate a wider military campaign aimed at ousting Assad, he said.
“Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis said, labeling the terror group “a clear and present danger.”
“The purpose of this attack was singularly against chemical weapons use,” Mattis told reporters, saying preventing the use of chemical weapons represented “a vital national interest” of the United States in order to ensure that such weapons of war do not become “commonplace.”
“The reason for the strike was that alone,” he said. “It was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign.”
“It [Syria] will not spiral out of control,” Mattis said to those worried that the Syrian war would expand.
“I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interest and there is nothing in their best interest to say they want this situation to go out of control.”
In the end, this will govern the Russian and American responses. The US wants to destroy ISIS. And despite demands that the US wants to push President Assad out, that will not govern US relations with Russia.
On the other hand, Russia wants to support President Assad and maintain its foothold in Syria. In order for that to happen, ISIS must be destroyed, which means Russia has little problem with the major American objective in Syria.
Don’t be fooled by the optics. Russia and the US will continue to find ways to work together when necessary.
Weak Legal Pretext for Trump’s Drive-By Tomahawking
By Gene Healy
April 11, 2017
I’m beginning to understand why Cato’s Michael Cannon is frequently found tearing his hair out over Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times project ostensibly devoted to “sorting out the truth in politics.” When I look at how badly they’ve botched issues involving constitutional war powers, I feel his pain. On Friday, the fact-checking organization weighed in on the legal debate over President Trump’s April 6 bombing of a Syrian airfield, with two essays concluding it was A-OK, constitutionally. “In some cases, people saying Trump needed congressional approval have gone too far” Politifact’s Lauren Carroll pronounces. For instance, Rep. Marc Pocan’s (D-WI) claim that there’s “no legal basis” for the strikes rates a full-on, needle-in-the-red “FALSE” on P-fact’s patented “Truth-o-Meter.” Tom Kertscher of Politifact Wisconsin asserts that: “For limited military activities like the missile strike, presidents can send in forces without approval from Congress.” You see, while the president may not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch a full-scale war, he can—if he thinks it’s a good idea, and assures himself it won’t bog us down—order up acts of war that don’t rise to the level of war: a light dusting of cruise missiles—a micro-aggression, constitutionally speaking.
Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief
By John Glaser
April 7, 2017
Contrary to the way it has been framed, the Trump administration’s bombing of a Syrian military base has virtually nothing to do with humanitarian relief. Hurling 50 Tomahawk missiles at a single military base does not fundamentally undermine the Assad regime’s ability to harm its own people, and it has zero chance of altering the military and political realities on the ground. It is merely a symbolic gesture intended to deter further use of chemical weapons. The problem with this rationale, from a humanitarian perspective, is that by last week the Assad regime had killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons. On Tuesday, it reportedly killed about 75 people with chemical weapons. If saving Syrians from regime violence is the justification, this is a wholly irrational way to go about doing it.
The U.S. Attacks on Syria: What Comes Next?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 7, 2017
No one should underestimate the value of the cruise missile strikes the United States launched on April 7, 2017. Attacking a single air base will scarcely cripple the Syrian Air Force, nor will it limit Syria’s ability to use its remaining chemical weapons. The strikes have, however, sent a very important signal to both America’s friends, its critics, and its enemies. One key message is that in the first real crisis of his Presidency, President Donald J. Trump listened to his expert advisors, proved to be flexible in changing his position, chose an option proportionate to the task, communicated effectively with Russia to avoid Russian losses, and acted quickly. He neither failed to act, nor did he overreact, and he sent a clear message that the United States would not only confront a localized threat—but would act in spite of Russian pressure. The U.S. strikes will not, by themselves, alter the course of the Syrian civil war, nor will they reduce the overall level of civilian suffering. The strikes may well, however, have set a precedent that will keep Assad from using chemical weapons again, as well as send a broader message that the United States will stand up to Russia. They have also shown that the United States will still use force when necessary.
The Country with the Most to Gain from Trump is not Russia; It’s China
By Erol Yayboke
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 6, 2017
Russia dominates our headlines in ways not seen since the Cold War. There are reported ties to the Trump campaign, Kremlin-sanctioned interference in the 2016 elections, silence over Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on anticorruption protesters, and regular trafficking in dangerous false equivalency “whataboutisms.” With all this focus, one could plausibly assume that Russia has the most to gain from the Trump presidency. That would, however, be a mistake. China is both better positioned and has much more to gain. U.S. withdrawal from its obligations to the liberal international order—which would be the effect of President Trump’s budget blueprint if passed by Congress—creates unprecedented space for Chinese opportunism. China is poised to replace the United States as global trade leader, and President Trump’s renunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has given it an opportunity to strengthen regional trade opportunities that were once available to the United States.
Coming Home? A Political Settlement in Syria Must Focus on Refugees
By Maha Yahya and Jean Kassir
March 30, 2017
A sustainable political settlement to end the multiple conflicts in Syria will not be possible without a real focus on the challenges of refugee returns. The complexities of the Syrian wars as well as previous international experiences with similar conflicts underscore that ensuring long-term peace requires a more focused attention on the challenges for effective repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons, including significant security and protection guarantees. Without these, and irrespective of the eventual shape of a political solution, their return may be neither possible nor sustainable—with significant repercussions for peace in Syria, neighboring countries, and states beyond.
Khan Sheikhoun, Shayrat Air Base, and What Next?
By Adam Garfinkle
Foreign Policy Research Institute
April 7, 2017
By now the world knows that U.S. military forces for the first time since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011 have attacked regime targets. Plenty of the basic facts are known about what transpired about 18 hours ago, but a few important ones are not—at least not in the public domain. For example, we have only a very general Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) report. This matters because Tomahawk cruise missiles are very accurate if “lite” weapons. Knowing what the four dozen or so missiles hit and missed, deliberately and otherwise, could tell us a lot about why the President, presumably with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ guidance and concurrence, chose the lesser of three options presented at what has been described as a meeting of considerable length. That, in turn, could tell us if the intention ultimately is to coerce the Russians into coercing the Syrians to stop doing monstrous things to their own people, and possibly coercing them to support a compromise political settlement to the war.”
Syria Strike Opens Doors for U.S. Strategy
By Genevieve Casagrande
Institute for the Study of War
Apr 8, 2017
The U.S strike against an Assad regime base in northern Syria on April 6, 2017 opened the door to a reorientation of American strategy in the Middle East. President Trump’s action could reset the terms of America’s confrontation of other hostile states, such as North Korea. President Trump may be shifting away from a narrow focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) as the strategic priority in Syria and toward a new approach. It remains unclear whether he will take additional action against the Assad regime, but his statement after the strike appeared to signal an emerging anti-Assad policy. Responses from major international powers and key regional actors indicate that these parties perceive the strike represents a possible strategic inflection rather than an isolated incident. President Trump has the opportunity to exploit the effects of his limited action to pursue America’s strategic goals.
Military Strikes on Syria: Historical Lessons and Implications
By Michael Eisenstadt
April 7, 2017
In the early morning hours of April 7, the United States launched fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles from two destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean against al-Shayrat Air Base south of Homs. The base was reportedly used by Syrian military aircraft that dropped chemical munitions on the town of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this week and then attacked a hospital treating the wounded, killing up to a hundred civilians, including dozens of children. According to a Pentagon statement, the strike targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage sites, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars, while avoiding chemical weapon storage facilities. The impact on Syrian air operations is likely to be modest, as Shayrat is not one of the Assad regime’s main operating bases. The primary impact is likely to be political, raising questions about whether the regime will now cease CW attacks, and whether other actors will press it to do so.