Syria: A Journey into the Unknown


There is reason for some extremely cautious optimism about last Thursday’s U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian regime air base. America has thus far avoided some of the most obvious, dangerous pitfalls of any possible intervention in Syria. So, at a minimum, Americans should be happy not to find themselves in a worst-case scenario.

But there is certainly still reason for concern. Washington has endeavored to clearly communicate the limited objectives of its strikes, but there is nonetheless substantial ambiguity about American aims, much of it of Washington’s own making. Any reaction or counter-escalation by U.S. adversaries is now largely out of America’s control, and some opportunists are already trying to repurpose U.S. action for their own, less focused ends.

After Thursday, America — and everyone else with a hand in Syria’s war — is now pretty well into the unknown.

(Mostly) Limited U.S. Aims

President Donald Trump and senior members of his administration have mostly stuck to the rhetorical line that the U.S. cruise missile strikes on al-Sha’eirat Airbase were a direct, proportionate response to the Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons and, specifically, to Tuesday’s apparent nerve gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The president noted in his statement after launching the strikes that they were a “targeted military strike” on “the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.” He went on to explain that it was in the “vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” Trump underscored that same logic in a letter sent to Congress Saturday, in which he said the attacks were aimed at degrading the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring further attacks.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his remarks on the eve of the strikes to clarify that “it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms” — points echoed Friday by Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations. Tillerson suggested this action did not represent “a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There’s been no change in that status.”

The strike, as it was executed and messaged, was meant to discourage the regime from further chemical weapons use — not to commit America to an unlimited escalation, or to some vague and impracticable goal of regime change.

The strike was launched to “deter the regime from using chemical weapons and so the proportionality is measured against that outcome,” a U.S. defense official told reporters Friday. “We do not believe it’s acceptable for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons.”

Still, U.S. officials have managed to somewhat muddy this message. Trump couched his message on chemical weapons deterrence in language about “beautiful babies” killed in the Khan Sheikhoun attack and a call for “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” Tillerson said, prior to Thursday’s strikes, that “steps are underway” to remove Assad, and his statement on the strikes voiced continued support for Geneva negotiations.

Haley, meanwhile, has been all over the map. Haley used her remarks at the U.N Security Council after the strike to send a mostly on-point message about the “very measured step” the United States had taken. Before the strike, she had said that Assad’s removal was no longer a U.S. priority. Then, days after the strike, Haley said in an interview that “there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.” Haley’s comments — coming alongside those of Tillerson and others — raise the question as to whether key administration figures are aligned or even communicating on major policy questions like Assad’s removal.

An Unfriendly Audience

How the Assad regime interprets these half-coherent actions and signals is now critical. Deterrence depends now on how and if the Assad regime, Russia and Iran respond to America’s attack. The initiative in that sense has now shifted, and whether this remains a one-off, limited strike is reliant on those responses.

While the intent of the U.S. strikes may appear clear and limited from Washington’s perspective, it is by no means assured they will be interpreted in the same way by the Assad regime, or that the regime will choose to be deterred.

The fact that we remain shocked by the Assad regime’s decision to employ proscribed chemical weapons at this particular juncture is suggestive of the West’s limited understanding of Syrian decision-making and the regime’s appraisal of its own interests. Similarly, the regime’s choices could be a function of the regime’s poor understanding of U.S. politics and policy. The regime and its allies have consistently denied responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun attack. It is impossible to know how deep this denial goes in the Syrian state, and how it could affect what Damascus does next. Further, American efforts to signal limited intent may lead the regime to underestimate the Trump administration’s commitment, thus undermining the strike’s deterrent capacity. In effect, the Assad regime might reach different conclusions about the advisability of next military steps than we might assume, even as it relates to the further use of chemical weapons. The regime or its allies have already carried out new airstrikes – using conventional weapons, apparently – against rebel-held towns, reportedly including Khan Sheikhoun itself in what appears to be a deliberate act of defiance.

The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have publicly condemned the U.S. strikes, which the Syrian presidency called, among other colorful epithets, “irresponsible and short-sighted.” Russia also announced it would suspend “deconfliction” communication with the United States meant to safely coordinate movements in Syrian airspace, and promised to bolster Syria’s air defenses. Both measures will complicate the U.S.-led fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State but fall short of a major counter-escalation.

The hope is that the regime will respond mostly as it does with Israel’s periodic targeted strikes on Iranian and Hizballah personnel and weapons transfers inside western Syria. That is, it will complain publicly but otherwise continue to prosecute the war as normal, albeit without the use of now-clearly proscribed chemical weapons. So far they have done just that. Both the Syrian military and Hizballah have said they will primarily respond to the strike by intensifying their fight against “terrorism.” Hizballah warned it would retaliate against the next American aggression, which suggests this one will be allowed to pass.

Yet even a return to the status quo ante will raise questions for the United States. The Assad regime’s military campaign, buttressed by the support and involvement of its foreign patrons and allies, has been savage and it will continue to be so. Thursday’s military strike does not seem to have been intended to impact that behavior, but the certain brutality of the Assad regime and the war writ large will create its own pressures for further U.S. action in some quarters.

Perhaps most problematic in this regard would be the potential future use of chlorine bombs by the Assad regime, which the regime has recently employed on a semi-regular basis with no apparent consequences. U.S. officials have referenced past chlorine attacks in their justifications for Thursday’s strike, but it remains unclear as to whether chlorine — as opposed to more deadly nerve agents such as sarin — would trigger an American response. That bifurcated approach is ripe for future misunderstanding.

Over-Optimistic Friends

Mainstream rebels hailed the missile strike and called on the United States to do more. It was “a first step in the right direction,” they said in a joint statement, and “the right starting point in confronting terrorism, violence, and criminality, and achieving a just political solution acceptable for Syrians.”

One jihadist inside Syria’s opposition-held northwest, meanwhile, told us residents were excited to see anyone strike a blow to the Assad regime but remained basically hostile to America. Local preachers were using their Friday mosque sermons to condemn America and rally residents for holy war, he said.

Of these reactions, it’s the former that’s actually more concerning. It is not positive or healthy if Syrians and other interested parties think this U.S. strike is something that it’s not, or if they anticipate a broader U.S. intervention that still seems unlikely. The Trump administration has so far starkly differentiated between Assad’s conventional war and his use of chemical weapons; whether it continues to do so will be the key variable with respect to future U.S. involvement in the conflict. Thursday’s strike does not have to set America on a slippery slope, but those pressures are real and already at work. American analysts and interventionist legislators are now attempting to retroactively map their more expansive preferences onto America’s limited military action, and may actually help confuse local actors regarding U.S. intentions. Some U.S. allies such as Turkey also seem to be seeking to bandwagon and shape this military strike into something beyond its initial intent.

As for the latter (anti-American, radical) reaction, we should not in any way be surprised or particularly troubled. While such sentiments are not ideal, they are not something America can realistically hope to change. Syria’s war by now has its own entrenched dynamics and motivated actors on all sides. They will continue to fight, regardless of American involvement, and America should not vainly try to stand in their way.

Risks, Including the Dangers of an Overactive Strategic Imagination

There are still substantial risks to even deliberately limited American action. The regime and its allies could counter-escalate inside Syria, certainly against U.S. proxies but also against U.S. forces now engaged in the fight against the Islamic State. And Syria is only one venue for America’s relationship with both Russia and Iran; each may respond elsewhere. We shouldn’t be blinkered or unimaginative in anticipating how and where they might retaliate. Such retaliation may not be limited to military counter-escalation. In the case of Russia, such responses could take a variety of diplomatic forms on seemingly unrelated issues and priorities.

These limited strikes cannot, as Trump put it, “end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria” nor fundamentally alter the trajectory of the war. But there is nothing America can do to achieve that end – at least not at any reasonable cost or threshold for risk.

The apparent success — so far — of limited U.S. action is not a vindication of earlier half-baked appeals to topple the Assad regime. U.S. intervention in Syria that fundamentally threatened the Assad regime and its allies’ vital interests would inevitably invite a more vigorous and dangerous reaction, and would in any case be unlikely to achieve any positive result. Thursday’s military action should not be an occasion to unbox mothballed plans for regime change. Whether framed in familiar – and implausible – escalate-to-deescalate terms or proliferating in new, fantastical variations, these ideas are dangerous and unworkable. Even less ambitious goals like revitalized negotiations for a top-down political transition are so low-percentage that they’re not a worthwhile use of American time and effort.

Despite criticism that this strike is untethered from any big-picture political strategy, the United States should resist that linkage. It would confuse the strike’s message and inevitably create a logic for escalation when its political goals are inevitably not met. If military pressure is recast as a means of gaining leverage against the regime and its backers more broadly, the next step will logically require further action and greater force. Calibrating military action against the regime to produce conditions conducive to negotiations has consistently proven unworkable.

These strikes might succeed on their own limited, deterrent terms. And success is just that: success. However, some people might try to retroactively move the goalposts. In the immediate aftermath of these strikes, the Trump administration should continue to explain — repeatedly and in painstaking detail, if necessary — the specific objective of this military action to Americans and the other parties to Syria’s war. America acted Thursday for a reason. Everyone should be made to understand it.

Thursday’s military action may yet achieve a defined, positive good if America can exercise rhetorical discipline and restraint, but we are still in early going. In the meantime, the Trump administration needs to resist attempts to revise American ambitions in Syria ever-upward.


Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. Follow Michael on Twitter: @mwhanna1

Sam Heller is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a Beirut-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.