As the dust settles from the recent U.S. cruise missile strike in Syria, the outlines of an American policy on Syria and Russia’s role in that conflict are visibly trying to catch up. The strike arguably heralded a more forward-leaning U.S. approach to the world — an America ready to use force on short notice, unencumbered by the handwringing deliberations that defined the Obama administration. Yet the cruise missile attack could be equally read as a judicious application of military power that is a calculated warning, leaning on the side of caution to the point of being militarily inconsequential.
The more important implications are for U.S.-Russian relations and America’s Syria policy writ large — or more accurately, the lack thereof. This brief punitive campaign may prove effective in deterring Assad, but seeking to parlay it into an effective Russian policy is a dubious proposition. This entire affair is coming off as an afterthought, trying to translate Syria’s use of chemical weapons into a confusing bid to shape Russian foreign policy. Moscow can see the obvious: The administration is trying to turn impulse into policy, and is making this up as it goes along. If you don’t know where you’re going, then Russia will happily guide you to where they want to go.
The cruise missile attack is unlikely to rectify the rather dramatic absence of leverage over Moscow in this conflict and the dearth of coercive influence that defines the U.S. relationship with Russia. The gains sought grossly exceed the investment. Combined with the absence of an articulated policy on Russia, it is clear the United States is engaged in a cheap gambit against people who are master craftsmen of the school of cheap gambits.
President Donald Trump inherited an almost non-existent hand in Syria. It’s high time to rectify that, but with the recognition that it’s not going to be easy. The United States should pocket this “win” quickly and not talk itself into a crisis in relations with Russia before it’s ready to take one on. And it’s visibly not ready. Learning to dance with near peer adversaries is not something one picks up in a few weeks. And it is nothing even approaching “delicate,” as someone wrote in these pages yesterday. The process will no doubt prove a “formative” experience for this administration.
Get Ready for a Learning Experience
There are clear indicators that, having fired these cruise missiles, the administration believes they are now negotiating with Russia in Syria from a position of strength. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said on Sunday that, “this is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they are doing.” Similarly, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, remarked that, “[t]his is something to let Russia know, ‘you know what? We’re not going to have you cover for this regime anymore.” The underlying assumption here seems to be that 59 cruise missiles sticking out of a Syrian airbase will rectify in one night the fact that Russia, Syria, and Iran hold almost all the cards in that conflict while the United States has had no discernible strategy since its inception. The Trump White House is probably in for some hard truths and a painful learning experience.
The strike demonstrates a good calculation of risk, but it was ultimately a cheap decision. The attending rhetoric and a gamble to pressure Russia over its support for Assad is missing a theory of victory, while the principals are visibly struggling to explain what happens now. At the U.N. Security Council, Haley contended that Assad “thought he could get away with it because he knew Russia had his back. That changed last night.” She is misreading Russia’s position on Assad and the leverage it has.
Ironically, if anyone is more furious at Assad for using chemical weapons than the United States, it is probably Russian leadership. This episode threatens to scuttle any hope they may have for rapprochement with the United States, which includes a common policy on Syria, but also tensions in Europe and elsewhere. Moscow’s legacy of having supposedly solved the chemical weapons question in 2013 has been shredded. Assad made fools of both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, who certified that he had given up his chemical weapons as part of the arrangement which first spared him from American strikes in fall of 2013.
Hence, we saw practically no response from Putin. Instead, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was trotted out to ramble something akin to a rebuke on his Facebook account. Just to make it clear, Monday night the head of Russia’s Federation Council implied they were not going to defend Assad from external threats. Given the outcome, Putin is unlikely to forgive Assad for this embarrassment, and may be dreaming of firing 60 cruise missiles at something Assad cares more about than al-Shayrat airbase.
For Moscow, this affair is probably an unexpected and bitter pill to swallow. It once again demonstrates that their desire for a role as power broker in Middle East is aspirational at best, and control over local actors in Syria remains elusive. Former Secretary of State John Kerry learned this in his numerous attempts to barter for a ceasefire to save Aleppo, which Russia never had for sale, and Haley will soon figure this out as well.
Hopefully McMaster’s accusations against Russia (“How could it be, if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?”) will be borne out by intelligence. If they turn out empty, it will be a quick way to drive the administration’s credibility on Russia into the ditch.
If anything, the United States may have done Russia a favor as far as the narrow issue of Syria is concerned. For example, the strike might help Russia regain some leverage over its Syrian partner. Between Nikki Haley and Vladimir Putin, the odds are that Assad is still more worried about what Putin might do to him.
Too Soon to Celebrate
It is important to not misread the events of the night of April 6, and Russia’s rather tepid response so far. The United States carefully calibrated its strike, giving Russia (and by extension Syria) advance notice, and selecting the airbase deemed responsible for the chemical weapons attack as a logical target. Militarily, the operation was judicious, with perhaps six Su-22 bombers and three Mig-23 fighters confirmed destroyed, along with supporting facilities and equipment. Russia had no aircraft on site. The strike made its point, but Syrian Su-22s were taking off of the runway the next day, which was intentionally left unscathed. Much of the base has been rendered unable to support sustained combat operations given the damage to fuel, ammunition storage, and other facilities.
Meanwhile Russia’s forces, which were doubtfully in position to affect the missile salvo, stood down. In terms of military realities, it is doubtful Russia’s S-400 and S-300v4 batteries were well-placed to counter the strike. There are so many variables in geography, missiles loaded, strike package routing, and radar coverage that affect such matters, beyond the simplistic red circles used to depict air defense in newspapers. As such, trying to defend Assad from this salvo was both politically and militarily nonsensical. Russia’s military footprint in Syria remains intentionally so small that it clearly is not meant to defend Assad.
It is, however, sufficient to pose the risks of escalation and miscalculation. Thus, the value of Russian air defense systems is found in their simple existence rather in their firing ranges. Those considerations no doubt had an important shaping effect, as we know the president seems to have selected the least risky and also least robust military option presented to him. He aimed for the Goldilocks zone of sending a warning while erring on the side of caution.
Initial rhetoric aside, the actual Russian response is still being formulated, delayed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Moscow. While a potential meeting with Putin has been nixed, face-to-face talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are likely where Russia’s leadership will offer a direct response after feeling out what the U.S. policy is. If they discover that no such thing exists and the missile strike was a one-off, then any leverage Washington hopes to attain will evaporate. Right now, that’s the most probable outcome.
The United States should also expect an answer for this strike elsewhere — and perhaps sooner rather than later. It may be another country where Russia has far more military power at hand like Ukraine, or a place where U.S. policy is equally moribund such as Libya. Or perhaps it will be a domain where the United States might prove otherwise vulnerable, such as cyber. Russia cultivates a reputation for reprisal; rarely is a foreign policy embarrassment left unanswered.
It Feels Good to be Back
For a moment, one could be deluded into believing that a muscular U.S. foreign policy has suddenly arisen to coerce and compel peer nuclear adversaries. This White House is a far cry from the Obama administration in tone, but a balance of power has not been miraculously altered. That’s the problem with cruise missiles. Russia has seen them before throughout the 1990s and 2000s. This strike would have made quite an impression back then, and perhaps even in the right context if used in 2013 prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intervention in Syria. However, given the current state of geopolitical confrontation, and the fact that Russia is far more confident of its own ability to use force, 59 cruise missiles are not anything approaching a game-changer.
Similarly, in threatening to reveal Russian complicity with the Syrian chemical strikes, McMaster and Haley are tugging at a string the Obama administration has tried time and time again without success. As recently as last September, the United States and allies accused Russia of war crimes over its combat operations in support of Syrian forces in Aleppo. That approach had no effect then and it won’t work now. It is important to learn from the mistakes of the past administration and not operate under disproven assumptions of how you gain leverage over Russia. The antics of Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who thinks he has stumbled upon a way to force Russia out of Syria with the help of the G7, are also telltale signs of a political misreading of the situation (and reminiscent of the antics of the very same Boris Johnson from September 2016.)
The story of Russian complicity in this attack also makes little sense, though in this world everything is possible. As noted above, Russia had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Either way, Moscow typically escalates in an effort to deny the West leverage. The situation is begging for a dramatic Russian strike in Syria to prove a point. We saw that happen during the Obama administration. The faces in the White House have changed, but the song remains mostly the same.
So far, the missile strike has been a lauded success within the policy establishment, but what’s impressive at home is not necessarily impressive abroad. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists may applaud in unison that America is back to their favorite pastime: blowing things up in the Middle East. Their “shining city upon a hill” is the flash of a missile being launched at something. In truth, Obama never respected the Washington policy establishment’s love of fireworks. He frequently denied his people what they wanted. After so many years, the hawks are getting a turn at the wheel to show what they can do.
It is better still that this test of foreign policy assumptions on Russia should come early in an administration, rather than having delusions dispelled years into a presidential term. Indeed, in a matter of weeks we will find whether “getting tough on Russia” and a cheap show of force is what will get the job done. Some experimentation, brinkmanship, and learning is in order, assuming we are all left standing to assimilate the lessons.
Play It Again, Sam
Beyond a mistaken theory that the United States has suddenly magicked leverage into its hand, the White House has another problem: it has no idea of what it wants from Russia in Syria. Not only have its foreign policy statements been wildly inconsistent, but adversaries can’t give you what you want if it changes week-to-week, nor will they take you seriously when you demand it.
The first step to a theory of how you compel Russia is figuring out what you’re trying to compel them towards, then how to build leverage to get it. Tillerson, Haley, and the White House need to start singing from the same sheet of music. As it stands now, it sounds like they are in a “battle of the bands” against each other. It’s also important to stop thinking of “Russia in Syria” and instead see that conflict as an issue in one of America’s most important bilateral relationships that cannot be separated and compartmentalized from the rest of the Russia problem set.
Barely weeks ago Haley stated it was not the United States goal to “sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” before demanding that very thing of Russia last Sunday. Meanwhile, Tillerson underlined that the United States does not “have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using chemical weapons,” and seemed less keen on a policy of regime-change in Syria. So is there evidence of anything, and does the United States seek regime change? Tillerson’s statements on Monday made clear that the focus of U.S. policy is still the fight against ISIL as well as working with Russia “to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria.”
In other words, the secretary of state vaporized whatever message the national security advisor and ambassador to the United Nations were trying to advance and vice versa. The U.S. government appears engaged in its time-honored tradition of each principal having their very own foreign policy. Hopefully, Tillerson’s version of U.S. policy aims will prevail, if only because that’s what he’s going to tell the Russians in Moscow this week. In any case, Russia will quickly recognize this circus for what it is — an attempt to come up with a policy after a missile strike rather than a missile strike that’s part of a policy.
Past American attempts at coercive diplomacy with Russia have typically lacked actual coercion, and a theory of how to gain leverage over Moscow. It will be rather startling if 59 cruise missiles turn out to be the answer to this problem. Thankfully, the previous administration tested a lot of theories that didn’t work, from empty threats at the United Nations, to disproven assumptions on what influences Russian behavior, to narratives about quagmires. It would be best for Trump’s White House not to set us on this journey, mounted on that very same broken wheel (or one just as broken in a different way).
In a contest of wills, Trump needs a plan to establish coercive credibility rather than hoping to scare the Russians with expensive fireworks. The number one mistake previous administrations made with Moscow is that, rather than deal with the Russia that is, they all imagined a Russia that suited them more, and then tried to have relations with that imaginary country.
The reality is, this administration’s only current leverage with Russia is the notion inside the Kremlin that a cooperative agenda with the United States is still possible. That’s a dubious proposition which offers the U.S. some advantages. Russia still hopes that there are carrots the United States might offer, or at the least it could get respite in the current confrontation and consolidate gains. If the administration is able to drag out this perception, rather than demonstrating that the White House is rapidly reverting to classical archetypes that Moscow anticipates, then there is an opportunity to obtain concessions.
In the interim, we can test one of the tenets of American foreign policy theology: that Russia is weak, sees Syria as a liability, and is ready for an off-ramp. If this thinking sounds eerily familiar it’s because these are the notions the previous administration desperately clung to and that’s how we got to where we are today.
Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.