After a strange process that didn’t seem to involve a meeting of the president’s national security advisers, the U.S. and its allies began launching airstrikes against Syria on Friday night in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapon attack which killed more than 40 people in Douma last week. The Trump administration and its French and British allies have assembled the largest air and naval force in the region since the end of the Iraq War, but the administration offered little explanation of what its Syria strategy was, even as the strikes got underway. Trump did broadly vow that the U.S. and its allies would use all their powers to deter Bashad al-Assad from using chemical weapons, but that was right before Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged that the airstrikes were limited to three targets, and that no further strikes were planned.
But while Washington may not appear to have a strategy, others do, and the moves they’ve made this week should make us more anxious about the consequences of these strikes than any previous ones.
In the days after the attack on Douma, the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies got what they wanted — the rebel group that had been holding out there agreed to be evacuated. After its departure, Syrian and Russian troops arrived. It is unusual for Russian troops to take such a publicly visible role in patrolling Syrian government territory, and their presence can be seen as a warning to Washington against making a retaliatory attack in Douma. It may also complicate the investigation by the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which begins this weekend. Already, the World Health Organization has said that 500 people sought treatment at its facilities with symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine or sarin gas. Russia said its troops on the ground have found no such people.
On Friday, the U.S., Britain, and France said that they were confident what happened last week in Douma was a chemical attack, and that it had been launched by Assad’s forces. Others insisted that doubts remained, but their credibility was not helped by Russia’s alternative explanation: that Britain had masterminded a fake attack involving rebels bursting into a hospital and squirting water on surprised and fearful civilians.
Assad’s regime spent the week letting the world know that, in response to President Trump’s initial tweets about what a military response would entail, it had moved many of its assets to bases where Russian troops and planes are also located. Past attacks have avoided targeting Russians — and resulted in limited damages to facilities that are not as difficult to repair or replace. Analysts will be watching claims about what was destroyed, and what Russia, and also Iran, choose to do in response. Former Pentagon and White House security official Julianne Smith pointed out on Twitter Friday night that neither needed to restrict their responses to Syria and could threaten U.S. forces and interests elsewhere around the globe if they chose.
Moscow spent the week preparing its citizens for this with a very stark message: Get ready for war, and not the Cold kind. It chose this week to make public service announcements about how civilians should respond in the event of a nuclear attack. Trump’s personal attack on Putin after the chemical attack comes as the latest in what Moscow sees as a string of provocations. First was the international condemnation and embassy drawdowns which followed the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. Then came Washington’s decision to impose a new round of sanctions on the tycoons closest to Putin, months after Congress had empowered the Trump administration to do so.
Even as Trump’s substantive actions have been (relatively) narrowly targeted — embassy personnel may be replaced, and sanctions focus on a narrow group of individuals — Putin seems to have decided on a broad response. The national parliament, which his allies control, is now considering legislation targeting a wide range of U.S. exports and intellectual property. This buys him some popularity at home after the terrible deaths of 64 people, including an entire class of schoolchildren, in a mall fire that exposed his government to rare mass criticism. It also distracts attention from the expectation voiced by many Russians that, after his triumphant re-election in March, Putin would focus on cleaning up the corruption that mars life for his supporters and opponents alike.
It is always possible that Trump and his team held Putin personally responsible for the chemical attack for strategic reasons. Or last weekend’s tweet may simply have been another facet of his rage and frustration at authority figures who fail to yield before him. KGB, FBI, what’s the difference? But the consequences of poking Putin personally are very real. It was, after all, criticism of prior elections that Putin perceived as personal that reportedly drove his outsized dislike for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and his desire to see her humbled in 2016.
The Pentagon, at least, seemed anxious to step back from the Russia-focused rhetoric. Secretary Mattis’s statement on the attacks said only Syrian forces were targets — which is to say, not Russia’s (or Iran’s) — but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford, also said that Russia was not given advance warning about the airstrikes, seemingly putting Russian forces at greater risk. In the last hours before these strikes launched, the Pentagon was busily letting the U.S. and global public know that it did not want to escalate military tensions with Russia — and opposed the White House aim of a military strike in Syria that would be significantly bigger than the one administered a year ago, while punishing Iran and Russia as well as Assad. It appears the Pentagon got its way, since Friday’s strikes were apparently only twice as intense as Trump’s “pinprick” retaliation against Assad last year.
But even though Trump said the strikes were intended to be a “strong deterrent,” and British Prime Minister Theresa May said they didn’t constitute an attempt to intervene in the civil war, Trump suggested the strikes might continue until the regime’s use of the weapons stopped. Given the depth of evidence suggesting that both the regime and opposition forces have used chemical weapons steadily over the years of the war, it is hard to see that as anything but an invitation to regular bombing runs with a risk of escalation and retaliation, and accompanying questions about whether each round of strikes is legal. It’s hard to see that as a step forward for the people of Syria. Trump’s understaffed administration is ill-equipped to handle the security challenges it faces. It can’t help that Trump appears to be deploying abroad the strategy that he has adopted domestically — improvisational chaos.