It Didn’t Have to Be This Way: Finding Leverage in Syria


The execution of Assad’s April 4 chemical weapons attack was a textbook use of these weapons. This suggests that the decision to use them was military in nature, not a complicated exercise in signaling to the outside world. Reported Russian military activity in the area clearly implicates Moscow as one of two things: either an impotent and clueless backer of the Syria regime, incapable of monitoring the activities of an air force it is co-located with, or party to a war crime

At President Donald Trump’s order, a barrage of cruise missiles collided with the Syrian air base that was purportedly the source of the chemical attack on Kahn Sheikhoun. This use of force has been widely praised and hailed as a potential turning point in the Syrian conflict. However, the use of limited cruise missile strikes to change state behavior has a poor historical track record. It is too early to tell if the strikes will contribute to the immediate goal of deterring future chemical weapon use in Syria or even a second goal now articulated by some members of the Trump administration: forcing Russia to reevaluate its support for Bashar al Assad.

Diplomacy is needed now, as ever, to end the Syrian civil war, but the same obstacles remain. The anti-Assad opposition is divided and, in some areas such as Idlib, sustained with support from an al-Qaeda affiliate. Iran and Russia remain committed to Assad’s preservation. Turkey is working at a cross purpose with the United States over how best to fight Islamic State, and is threatening to use force to attack Washington’s preferred ground partner, the Kurdish-dominated Syria Democratic Forces. A cruise missile attack does not change these dynamics. In fact, this choice may have been a missed opportunity for the Trump administration.

The rush to use force has deprived the United States of leverage over Russia, an adversary working at against American interests around the globe. The key challenge, as pointed out by Michael Kofman yesterday, is to figure out exactly what U.S. policy is, then figure out how to build leverage against Russia and Syria towards that policy aim. The cacophony of conflicting policy statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Halley has made it hard to discern if the administration is moving toward an overt policy of regime change. However, in Trump’s letter to Speaker Paul Ryan on the attack he laid out narrow goals:

I directed this action in order to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons…

Below, I offer an approach that can serve that narrower aim while also gaining multilateral support to punish those who enable the Syrian military’s devastating campaign.

How We Got Here

America’s use of military force now allows Russia to shift the focus from its own culpability in mass atrocities to Washington’s disregard for international norms. In 2013, Russia guaranteed Syria’s decision to agree to dismantle its chemical weapons program. Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, following its brutal use of chemical weapons Ghouta, a densely-populated Damascus suburb. The Sarin attack killed 1,500 people in the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Chemical Weapons Convention opened for signature in 1993. The attack violated former President Barack Obama’s stated “red line” for the use of military force, leading the Pentagon to prepare a target list for airstrikes far in excess of last week’s strike. Donald Trump also called for restraint in the wake of the attack, tweeting on multiple occasions his aversion to military force. During the campaign, he was more overt in his preference when signaled possible collaboration with the Assad regime, saying, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing [Islamic State].”

Falling short of regime change, the purported aim was to reinforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons by “deterring and degrading” the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons. This would, in turn, reinforce the global norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction. Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this outcome would link norm enforcement to near unilateral U.S. military action, and would be conducted without widespread international support.

Eventually, Obama chose not to strike the Syrian regime. Instead, the Obama administration worked with Russia on a deal for Syria to become a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In doing so, the president sought to use international institutions to achieve the policy goal underpinning his red line: the elimination and removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.

After Syria formally acceded to the convention in October 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention, began to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. From the outset, the process was plagued with uncertainty, but it was officially completed by June 2014. Following implementation, the OPCW put in place a secondary mechanism to monitor Syrian compliance. Known as the Fact-Finding Mission, the body was asked “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes” in Syria. In turn, the mission’s work led to a joint United Nations-OPCW body — dubbed the Joint Investigative Mechanism — to identify the perpetrators of attacks documented by the mission. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the Joint Investigative Mechanism in 2015, extending the mandate again in 2016.

Applying the Chemical Lessons of Iraq and Libya

The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons relied on Assad making a declaration of chemical precursors (the component chemicals that when mixed create weapons) and associated infrastructure to manufacture precursors or the munitions. To verify the declarations, Assad’s list was measured against intelligence assessments from the major Western powers and Russia. It is now clear that Assad’s list was incomplete. His failure to declare Syria’s full stockpile mirrors similar incidents in Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. In that case, the Libyan National Transitional Council declared two additional storage facilities and sulfur mustard precursors in artillery shells and badly degraded storage containers. Gaddafi, like Assad, held these weapons back and did not declare them. In Iraq, after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, U.S. soldiers were exposed to unaccounted for and undeclared chemical weapons during the destruction of Iraqi ordnance. The Iraqi chemical weapons were all leftovers from the Hussein regime’s 1980s-era program that the regime appears to have lost track of after the 1991 Gulf War.

The Libya and Iraq examples are useful for thinking about how to employ existing tools to increase pressure on Russia, a worthwhile strategy for American foreign policy, and then to translate that pressure into achievable solutions in Syria. In the Libya and Iraq cases, military force helped overthrow regimes that maintained a severely degraded chemical weapons capability. Both the Iraqi and Libyan regimes were serial human rights abusers presiding over authoritarian states with few natural allies. Syria is now in a similar position, wherein the government clearly retains the capability to use chemical weapons, albeit on a lesser scale than in 2012. Yet, there is a clear difference: The Assad regime’s survival is guaranteed by Iran and Russia. Given Iran’s position as the largest victim of chemical weapons use in the world and Russia’s role as a great power, Assad’s use of chemical weapons should be used to impose costs on policies that contribute to the use of those weapons.

Holding Syria and its Backers to Account

Russia was instrumental in securing the original chemical weapons agreement that ultimately ended with Syria becoming a member of the convention. In doing so, Syria is obligated to:

… never under any circumstances: (a) To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone; (b) To use chemical weapons; (c) To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons.

Assad flagrantly violated these obligations. In the event of suspected noncompliance, a state party can call on the OPCW to inspect the territory of another signatory. As a party to the convention, Syria is obligated to grant the OPCW access. To facilitate this arrangement, the Syrian regime, Russia, and the insurgents in the area would have to agree to a ceasefire to allow for independent inspections that allows the OPCW to make  a determinative judgement about the perpetrator of the attack. This would be a departure from the approach taken to Ghoutta in 2013. If Syria resists, it would be in further violation of its convention obligations. Russia, too, would be undermining an international norm that it purports to support, and indirectly confirming regime culpability. As a means to coerce compliance, the United States and its Western allies have the option to prepare sanctions against the Syrian military and, more importantly, the Russian entities responsible for providing spare parts to chemical weapons capable delivery vehicles. A sanctions-based strategy would require sustained diplomacy on the part of the United States and its European allies, but it would have the benefit of increasing the economic pain on Russia at a time when its economy is doing poorly and corruption is more salient in Russian domestic politics.

The aforementioned options rely on the international norms and enforcement mechanisms that Syria agreed to in 2013, while also building a case for sanctions against the key enabler of Assad’s chemical weapons delivery vehicles: Russia. It would have also served as a key piece of leverage with members of the European Union, many of whom are wary of using sanctions against Russia. Absent a credible international investigation, the western response is likely to fragment, weakening broad-based support for a U.S.-led effort to impose costs on Russia for its support of Assad. At the very least, this process should have been set in motion before Tillerson travelled to Italy for his meeting with the G-7, and in preparation for the next meeting with the leaders of the European Union in June 2017. In this sense, the strikes staked out a maximalist response before the marshaling of a coalition that, with the right combination of incentives and pressure, could have considered increasing pressure on Russia.

In Moscow this week, Tillerson should consider taking a very hard line and call for an inspection on terms that deprive Russia of its veto at the U.N. Security Council. In doing so, he should ignore Russian calls for a hollow and toothless inspection effort that will not assign blame for the chemical weapons attack. This task, however, will be difficult after the strikes. Contrary to what many administrations supporters seem to think, the United States lacks a credible military threat to compel a change in the current Russian approach. The United States will not target Russian military assets and has signaled that it does not intend to augment its military presence on the ground. This policy rightly assumes that a broader confrontation with Russia over Syria is not in America’s best interest.

Sanctions on Russian entities could help to give the United States leverage to achieve its two articulated goals: the deterrence of future chemical weapons attacks and punishing support of an actor that uses chemical weapons. Washington should seek to win European support, ideally with Brussels reciprocating and implementing its own similar sanctions against Moscow. The sanctions are unlikely to significantly alter Russia’s position on Assad. Instead, the goal of the sanctions should be to compel future Russian concessions on issues of interest to the United States in future peace talks involving the regime and the opposition or, more narrowly, on a well-enforced ceasefire. The sanctions could also be tailored, allowing for some to be removed for Russian efforts to compel Assad to declare and then turn over his remaining chemical weapons for destruction.

Strategy by Cruise Missile

Cruise missiles are useful tools of war, but — like all weapons — they do not automatically produce political outcomes. This was true in 1998 during the four-day bombing of Iraq designed to “punish” Saddam Hussein for ending U.N. inspections and again that same year with Operation Infinite Reach, where a cruise missile strike against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan was meant to deter future terror attacks. The Desert Fox strikes did not compel Saddam to comply with American demands for an intrusive inspection of Iraq’s large presidential sites. The inspectors left Iraq shortly before the United States and United Kingdom began the air campaign and never returned – they were replaced with a weaker inspection regime than before the start of military action. The strike, therefore, failed to force Saddam to readmit inspections the U.S. relied on for on the ground information about the Iraqi WMD program — an outcome that contributed to the poor intelligence undergirding the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003. Clinton’s cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda did not stop the group from attacking the United States three years later on 9/11. For Syria, the outcome is still unknown, but the strike does not change the dynamics of the conflict – a goal senior U.S. officials now attach to the strike.

Cruise missiles don’t give the United States any leverage, they do not degrade Russia’s ability to sustain Assad’s war effort, they do not account for the weapons Assad “held back,” and they do not provide a pathway to eliminate these weapons. Policymakers will have to think through how to eliminate these weapons. The threat of their proliferation and future use will not disappear – and it is long-standing U.S. policy to uphold global norms against weapons of mass destruction. Absent a strategy built around the tactic of using standoff weapons, the recent attacks may amount to little more than the destruction of supporting elements at a Syrian air base, and not much else.


Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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