Should the United States launch a second round of air or missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad's airforce? Iran and Russia recently convened along with the Assad regime to send a united message to Washington that future strikes would not be tolerated. Though it was not clear what tangible response – if any – the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis could realistically be expected to use in retaliation against the US.
President Donald Trump seems to have outmanuevered the Kremlin and the Ayatollah. His national security advisor and Secretary of Defense have signaled that the US is ready to use military force again if necessary against the Assad regime. Nonetheless, the Trump administration continues to face broad criticism on the domestic front for enabling a more robust American military posture in the Middle East.
Henry Kissinger once said, “a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.” From charges that his actions in Syria will lead to a wider war, to accusations of unilateralism and waging war unconstitutionally, President Trump is receiving criticism from both the left and the right for not adhering to a perfectly rigid foreign policy doctrine.
Many foreign policy pundits and former Obama administration national security advisors mistakenly assert that disengagement in Syria is the right and prudent path. Others like Senator Rand Paul argue that an attack against the Syrian regime is functionally an act of war and should not have happened without Congressional approval.
Commentators from the alt-right were also furious in their condemnation that Trump steered away from the ideological purity they had expected from him on the issue of non-intervention in the middle east.
But, by the admission of many former administration officials the “process perfection” and endless deliberation that became hallmarks of the Obama administration led to policy paralysis and a degrading surrender of US leadership and deterrence. It was a paralysis that also offered the requisite impunity, time, and space for both Assad and the Islamic State to commit atrocities without meaningful consequence for years.
The Assad regime’s airforce has already resumed conventional bombing of rebel held areas. Again, most of the victims are civilians. This is part of a long established military strategy by the Assad regime to systemically force mass displacement as a means to place pressure on rebels, whether by barrel bombs or sarin gas.
The only real sustainable solution to preventing the future use of chemical weapons in Syria is the neutralization of the Syrian Scientific Research Center (SSRC or known by its French acronym CERS) which maintains production and research centers co-located with air bases in handful of sensitive locations
Did the April 6th tactical strike against a major Assad airbase complicate geopolitical matters? Yes, it absolutely does. But that should not preclude the Trump administration from pursuing additional air strikes against Assad’s war machine and key SSRC facilities.
The nature of the leadership of Bashar al Assad and his regime's decision to covertly develop and launch advanced ultra-lethal chemical weapons against a civilian populace are inexorably linked. Assad after all these years is not going to change his stripes.
The thinking in Damascus is that the US would not risk even a small possibility of wider escalation and conflict with Moscow and Tehran. It may have proven a well calculated bluff; but President Trump briefly called Assad out on that bluff when he ordered the cruise missile strikes against the Shayrat airbase.
The Assad regime believed that it could avoid accountability for charges of genocide, depending on seven vetoes by Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council against even the mildest resolutions to hold Assad accountable. It was no accident that in just February of this year, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a UNSC resolution to place sanctions on any party in the Syria conflict found to be using chemical weapons.
Because of the power of this veto, the UNSC process to hold Assad accountable through a multilateral international consensus is hopelessly moribund.
So, we should not lose sight that Assad’s forces today are more vulnerable than ever to a sustained air campaign against its strategic military assets. As the Syrian civilian uprising gradually morphed into guerilla warfare, the Assad regime was forced to consolidate its airbases and chemical weapons facilities from dozens of dispersed sites (spread out so as to maximize chances of survival in the event of an Israeli military attack) into nearly half a dozen military bases that are of major military value. These military complexes include command and control elements, airfields for air supply and air strikes, and special production and storage facilities overseen by the Syrian Scientific Research Center (SSRC) – which is responsible for Assad’s chemical warfare program and special weapons program research and development.
For the deterrent effects of the missile strikes to be lasting, follow on strikes are warranted against critical Assad regime military facilities – to include SSRC headquarters in Damascus. From a military standpoint, follow on strikes are feasible and carry little risk. Assad’s integrated air defense system has been hollowed out – Shayrat airbase is in the center of the country and is a high valued military asset, yet its air defenses offered no resistance as they were quickly neutralized. In March, the Israeli Airforce successfully launched multiple air strikes across some the regime’s most heavily defended airspace. All of the aircraft escaped unharmed and the Assad regime’s long range radar and ground to air missiles were shown to be embarrassingly inept.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Iran. Analysis are rightly worried of the possibility that Iranian proxies active in Iraq could retaliate against US military forces operating against the Islamic State in Mosul. Already one Iranian aligned faction, “The League of the Righteous” has threatened attacks against US marines stationed in Iraq. Iraqi Shia extremists operating in Syria are also led by a militant who once fought (and was subsequently detained by) US forces in Iraq a decade ago.
So if cruise missiles alone will not alter the balance in Syria nor stop Assad from further atrocities, why should Assad’s bombing campaign matter to your average American voter ?
Because the fight against ISIS and other extremists will be severely handicapped by the Assad regime’s primary use of his airfields to launch attacks against civilian populaces that oppose his rule. Iran is banking that it can leverage its militias to indirectly blackmail the US from pursuing further strikes against Assad.
I was deployed to Iraq a decade ago when the Assad regime was actively facilitating al Qaeda – that eventually morphed into the Islamic state – cells in eastern Syria to move weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq. National security practitioners such as General H.R McMaster understand this historical Assad- al Qaeda nexus; the US forces McMaster commanded in 2005 in Tal Afar, Iraq were a few miles from the Syrian border and were often attacked by foreign fighters that Assad’s security services helped facilitate
Just yesterday, a Pentagon backed rebel group which had been making significant gains against ISIS in key areas in eastern Syria faced sustained strikes by Assad’s airforce.
Another great statesman Vice President Biden once famously said, “big nations can’t bluff”. Unfortunately, Obama did when he allowed Assad to cross the so-called ”red line” in 2013. That hollow bluff has brought us to the precipice of a deadlier war in Syria. By re-establishing American deterrence in Syria, Trump can show that the days of empty American bluffs are long gone.