The shadow of inadvertent escalation has loomed large over the Syrian battlefield in recent days. Last Thursday night, President Donald Trump authorized missile strikes in Syria in response to a recent chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun. In a matter of minutes, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on al-Shayrat airfield, pummeling Syrian fighter jets, aircraft shelters, and other military targets.
In an important sense, the missile strikes represent a departure for American policy in Syria. The CIA began arming opposition forces in 2013, U.S. aircraft have waged an expansive air campaign in the country since 2014, and U.S. special operations forces have operated on the ground since 2015. However, Thursday’s strikes mark the first time the United States directly attacked regime targets.
In other respects, U.S. behavior during the planning and execution of the strikes remained consistent with policy priorities Washington has held throughout the duration of the Syrian civil war. Chief among those priorities is the desire to avoid expanded conflict with Syria’s primary international backer, Russia.
To date, U.S. efforts to avoid inadvertent escalation with Russia have manifested in a range of tacit and explicit agreements that aim to avoid direct confrontations between American and Russian forces. In the air, for example, the United States and Russia established a memorandum of understanding that mandates “maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground.” American and Russian pilots are to operate at “safe distances” from one another, and “it is standard practice for [U.S. pilots] to stand off until the airspace is clear.” Both sides also coordinate their efforts to avoid inadvertent targeting on the ground. Under the Obama administration, for example, the Pentagon acknowledged that it informs Russia about the locations of U.S. special forces currently operating in Syria. Asked about the logic of these disclosures, the head of U.S. Air Force Central Command highlighted the importance of controlling escalation: “We told [the Russians] these are […] general areas where we have coalition forces that we don’t want them to strike […] because all it’s going to do is escalate things.” Escalation fears also animate American unwillingness to arm rebel forces with heavier weapons that would enable rebel defense against Russian aircraft and artillery.
U.S. actions during the recent cruise missile strike were consistent with these policies of escalation control. First, the Pentagon informed Russia of the strike before launching the missiles. Notably, the United States did this despite knowing that Russian officials could alert the Assad regime of the impending attack. Indeed, eyewitnesses on the ground have suggested that Syrian military officials anticipated Thursday’s strikes, evacuating personnel and moving equipment out of the area prior to the missile barrage.
Second, U.S. military planners explicitly sought “to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield,” and have emphasized that the “target in this attack was not Russian. It was not the Russians. It was not their forces nor any Russian individuals.” While Syrian planes and infrastructure were targeted and destroyed, Russian assets were avoided: No Russian planes were stationed at the airfield during the attack, no Russian facilities on the base were targeted by the strikes, and there have been no reports of Russian casualties.
Third, the target was unambiguous and the attack was discrete. U.S. officials have been careful to link the target of the strikes with the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, making clear the relevance of the airfield as the source of the attack and the need to send a “warning shot” that the continued use of chemical weapons is both unacceptable and in violation of the 2013 agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also warned against extrapolating from the strikes, emphasizing that there has been no change in U.S. policy or posture in the broader Syrian conflict.
In short, while the strike does represent an expansion of the target set in Syria and a reassertion of America’s coercive leverage in the conflict, it was conducted in ways broadly consistent with U.S. policy to date. Controlling escalation vis-à-vis Russia has been — and appears to remain — an overarching priority that shapes and constrains U.S. policy in Syria.
In this regard, two worrying developments merit attention. The first is the Kremlin’s decision to suspend the memorandum of understanding on air operations that deconflicts U.S. and Russian aircraft. The suspension of the deconfliction channel risks accidental collisions and misinterpretations in the skies over Syria, increasing the threat of inadvertent escalation in the conflict. As Thomas Schelling warned long ago
[B]uzzing an airplane […] does no harm unless the planes collide; they probably will not collide but they may and if they do the result is sudden, dramatic, irreversible, and grave enough to make even a small probability a serious one.
For this reason, it is essential that U.S. policymakers resist the temptation to engage in a “competition in risk-taking” with their Russian adversaries and work to reinstate the deconfliction channel as quickly as possible.
A second worrying development is the attempts of some U.S. policymakers to interpret the al-Shayrat strike as a “first step” toward an expanded U.S. role in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it did not take long for familiar voices to renew their calls for increased U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, including the complete grounding of the Syrian air force, increased support for opposition forces, and the establishment of safe zones to address humanitarian suffering. The tone of some administration voices has also shifted. On March 30, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley seemed to suggest the United States could live with the Assad regime. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes,” she said. “Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” By April 8, the ambassador’s language was decidedly different:
Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.
After years of death and destruction with little to show for U.S. diplomatic and military efforts, the hope that a more robust military intervention might deliver sustainable peace in Syria is understandable. But what intervention advocates ignore is the fact that Russia would almost certainly increase its own military activity in response to any American escalation that threatens the survival of the Assad regime. There is historical precedent for such an outcome: It was precisely when the Assad regime seemed most threatened by U.S.-backed rebels, in September 2015, that Russia stepped up its participation in the war and actively intervened with its own forces.
A more robust U.S. intervention in Syria would increase the scope of violence inflicted by the war, but it will not solve the problems that underlie the conflict. What makes the al-Shayrat strike different is its limited nature: The attack did not threaten the Assad regime’s survival and only marginally degraded its military capacity (reports suggest Syrian warplanes were once again using the airfield as early as Friday). In this respect, it was a symbolic strike that aimed to communicate a message, rather than a militarily substantive strike that would affect the balance of forces on the battlefield.
By warning Russia in advance of the strikes, avoiding Russian personnel and infrastructure targets, and explicitly linking the target of the strikes with the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, the United States demonstrated its unwillingness to tolerate the use of chemical weapons while at the same time providing the necessary space for Russia to save face and avoid a forceful counteraction. Analysts and policymakers should interpret Thursday’s strikes, and indeed the wider Syrian conflict, in this light: a delicate U.S.-Russian dance that seeks to secure competing national interests while avoiding dangerous and damaging escalation.
Noel Anderson is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Dickey Center, Dartmouth College, and will be joining the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto as an assistant professor in July 2017. His research explores external intervention in internal conflicts, limited war, and counterinsurgency.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams