Listen to the audio player above or download the link here to listen at your leisure. We’ll embed the audio player halfway through and at the end of the article as well.
Show Notes (Syria Timeline)
The most recent Pod Save the World episode does a good job establishing a quick timeline of the Syrian Civil War and a more detailed timeline of Obama’s involvement with it.
Of course, Vox has an explainer. The video attached to the explainer is excellent and the piece does an excellent deep-dive into the various parts of the history of the war.
Show Notes (Policy Coherence)
The Trump White House recognizes that they do not have a doctrine for foreign policy and exist entirely on the whims of a mercurial man.
We mentioned the Weeds podcast by Vox, which is where they gave us a brief history of Trump reversing policy positions because of photos he’s seen on television, including his stances on Libya and immigration.
On Syria specifically, the Trump administration has sent incredibly confusing and contradictory signals, as evidenced by Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson’s recent statements.
Deterrence is dependent upon clear signals and followup. Limited strikes have historically signaled weakness by themselves, so a consistent policy needs to emerge to reinforce the initial message.
Nor do one-off attacks like the one we launched have a good track record. In a civil war that has claimed so many dead, the military impact of a missile strike on one facility is limited, even if it signals a profound shift in U.S. policy. Rather, such actions often are painted as “symbolic,” but in reality they usually signal weakness, not resolve. The dictator or terrorist on the receiving end suffers little but often looks stronger because they survived a U.S. attack and can boast about their defiance. In 1998, after Al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa, the United States launched cruise missiles against facilities believed to be linked to terrorists in Afghanistan and Sudan—Operation Infinite Reach. The strikes backfired, allowing Bin Laden to claim he was standing up to the United States. His popular support and associated ability to recruit soared, and Al Qaeda terrorism continued undiminished. Contrast this with the sustained drone campaign against Al Qaeda that began under President George W. Bush in the years after 9/11 and took off under Obama. This devastated Al Qaeda, but it required years and many many strikes.
There is also evidence that the strikes are a result of Ivanka Trump’s wishes rather than a clear foreign policy strategy.
Show Notes (Gas Attack)
Here’s the Guardian piece we mentioned. It’s incredibly revealing and moving.
Witnesses said the air raids began shortly after 6.30am on Tuesday, with four bombings around the town. Initially they thought it was just another airstrike, until the first responders who arrived at the scene began falling to the ground.
Khutainy said: “They told us ‘HQ, we are losing control’. We had no idea what they were trying to say. Then they said, ‘come save us, we can no longer walk’. So the second and third teams went with just face masks. We could smell it from 500 metres away.”
People described a scene of utter horror at the attack site . The wounded were shaking and convulsing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, their lips blue, passing in and out of consciousness.
Chlorine gas is the new norm in the Syrian civil war. It has been for quite some time. Not only that, starvation is a tool regularly employed by Bashar al-Assad to kill civilians. There’s a good summary at CSIS here.
No one can deny the horrifying nature of images of babies and children that have been killed by nerve gas. It is critical, however, that these images be kept in perspective. This is only one atrocity among many in the history of the Syrian civil war since 2011, and in the history of the Assad regime. Assad has used poison gas many times before, and while nerve gas is the most lethal deployed form of chemical weapons, it kills relatively quickly and mercifully compared to the chlorine gas the Assad regime has used since it supposedly gave up its chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons may be a useful excuse to act against Assad, but they are scarcely the core of the case against him.
Chemical weapons are a vanishingly small part of the human cost. There are no reliable estimates of the number of Syrian civilians that have been killed and injured in the fighting, or exactly who is responsible, but most estimates reach 400,000 in early 2016, and the vast majority have clearly been killed or injured by the Assad regime. The UN ceased to estimate civilian casualties in early 2016 because of the inability to produce reliable estimates, but the number almost certainly exceeded 400,000 in early 2016, and was probably closer to 500,000 by the end of 2016.
Casualties, however, are only a small part of the story. It is the Assad regime which is responsible for the vast majority of refugees and internally displaced persons. Western Syria is the core of its population and it is the fighting there—not with ISIS—that has done most of the human damage. Children that drown as refugees, or die of disease and malnutrition in the desert, suffer at least as much or more than those who die from nerve gas, and the dead have an end date to their suffering.
There are a lot of pieces that argue that the gas attack doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of Bashar al-Assad. Like what Arif said on the podcast, we agree with those pieces. But the New York Times published a piece arguing just the opposite, and its well worth a look.
The use of what was probably sarin gas against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun was meant to terrify the local population and the fighters who rely on their support. Mr. Assad hoped this would weaken their resolve and bring about their collapse and a clear path to regime victory.
Show Notes (The Way Forward)
If you read nothing else from this piece except this roundtable from the Century Foundation on Syria, we’ll have done our job. It is an incredibly complex, thorough and thoughtful look at the Syria conflict (published before the gas attacks) from four experts who debate out a number of primary and tertiary questions regarding Assad, governance and what Syria may look like. It is also the piece that highlighted how little the US knows about Syria.
Basic facts about the official state are hard enough to come by, and it’s all one big blur of rumor and guesswork when we get to the more informal aspects of the regime—like the role of business interests, high-level friendships, family rivalries, and so on. Ask two Syrians about how the regime functions, you get three opinions. Ask a professional Syria analyst, you get a 10,000 word paper with cool diagrams. But no one knows. Even basic facts elude most of us working on these issues. How involved is the president in day-to-day decisionmaking? In what institutions are the major issues debated? How do the various security chiefs and presidential advisers relate to each other? Can they contradict Assad? And so on.
Imagine a whole cadre of Americanologists trying to predict the next few years in U.S. politics without ever having seen a copy of the U.S. Constitution and not knowing whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate. That’s kind of where this is.
Here’s a good primer on avoiding false equivalences and fallacies regarding Syria and a good place to start if you’re seriously interested in the concept of humanitarian intervention as a force for good.
Trump will need to avoid mission creep moving forward. Russian and Iranian forces are intermingled with Syrian forces, and Russian equipment staffed with Russian personnel are replete throughout Syria.
For Iran, Syria is an indispensable part of its regional security architecture, and it seems willing to escalate indefinitely if the Assad regime is threatened.
Russia is always going to be intractable. Putin sees Syria as critical to his domestic agenda and part of his larger goal of restoring the Soviet Union. He has invested a serious amount of his political capital in Syria and uses it to distract from increasing protests and an increasingly failing economy. Not only that, it gives Russia its only access to a warm water port, something it’s been struggling with for 300 years. Russia also has significant domestic political legitimacy wrapped up in Syria and faces internal pressure to secure their stake in the region—particularly to distract from widespread protests, increasingly loud accusations of corruption and a failing economy.
That mission creep will be particularly important as Russia is ramping up tensions by ending deconfliction channels instead of offering a pathway to a solution, as some experts predicted.
There will be more pressure for Trump to escalate than there will be to draw down.
These strikes thus risk provoking a new escalatory cycle, re-energising all parties for intensified war. This is all the more true given that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, indicated an apparent US recommitment to regime change, essentially closing the door to a quick pivot to a viable political track.
For a significant number of those pushing for US intervention – both in 2013 and today – the chemical weapons issue has long been a means to a deeper end: escalating US intervention that deals with Assad. Much of the opposition and its regional backers will view US strikes as the thin edge of the wedge.
But Trump will face considerable pressure to deliver regime change, an outcome to which his administration’s credibility is now seemingly tied. Combined with a clear desire to differentiate himself from the perceived weakness of Obama, Trump may find it very hard to resist escalating US involvement in the conflict. With the administration placing Iran firmly in its cross-hairs since coming to power, and Moscow already responding to these initial strikes by cutting off military de-confliction channels with the US over Syria (in a manner which could also severely hamper Western efforts against the Islamic State group), the possibility of dangerous confrontation is clear.
The fight against ISIS has become much more difficult as a result of the strikes, according to a former Defense department official.
For the past two years, U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown in and around one of the world’s more robust air defense systems without the Syrian regime harassing the pilots. We had a few incidents where Russian jets got too close to U.S. aircraft or Syrian anti-aircraft radar lit up U.S. or coalition aircraft, but for the most part, the air war has gone forward unimpeded.
Both Russia and the Syrian regime, though, are still well-positioned to play the spoiler. They can affect the flights of U.S. aircraft in eastern Syria by activating their air defenses and have, in recent months, brought in more advanced air-defense weaponry that has even the Israelis nervous. They’ve also “accidentally” struck U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the Islamic State.
Show Notes (Legality of Strikes)
The Lawfare blog did an excellent job drilling down on what the Office of Legal Counsel said on prior strikes. Those precedents are what think tanks and conservative media have already begun peddling in anticipation of the (probably small) legal fight that will erupt surrounding this. Here’s the CSIS report on the legal foundation for air strikes without the authorization of Congress. It references the the OLC arguments as well as the international legal basis for the strikes, and how Trump can get around (like every president has) Chapter II of the United Nations Charter.