A Reckoning Will Come in Syria

In order to have any real impact on chemical-weapons use, the American response needs to be sustained.

A missile crosses over Damascus. (Sana / Reuters)

It is undoubtedly a good thing that a small international coalition of the willing responded to Syria’s latest chemical outrage with a limited military strike. But it marks only the first step in an effective strategy to stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons—and more importantly, to hold Russia accountable for its promise to oversee a chemical weapons-free Syria.

Syria and Russia have displayed characteristic bluster and dishonesty, warning of “consequences” for a crisis that the Syrians themselves provoked by apparently violating, once again, their 2013 agreement not to use chemical weapons. Any confrontation with destabilizing bullies is dangerous, and there is no predicting whether and how they’ll respond.

Even a limited and justified effort to contain Syria and its allies carries a risk of escalation. The Trump administration, with its capricious chief executive and broken policy-making process, is ill equipped to forge the sort of complex strategy needed to manage Russia, Syria, Iran, and a Middle East in conflict. Nor has it so far displayed much interest in building the international cooperation necessary to implement such a strategy—although it was a pleasant development that the United States was joined this time by France and the U.K. rather than proceeding unilaterally. However, the considerable drawbacks of the Trump administration don’t give the West a pass when it comes to Syrian use of chemical weapons, and Russia’s belligerent expansionism. Both need to be checked and contained, even considering the additional risks Trump creates.

In order to have any real impact on chemical weapons use, the response needs to be sustained. Every time the regime uses chemical weapons, there needs to be a retaliation, which specifically targets the regime’s chemical-weapons capacity—command and control, delivery mechanisms including aircraft and bases, storage, research, and the like. A political strategy is indispensable as well. Since Russia is the guarantor of the failed 2013 chemical weapons agreement, the West needs to keep Russia on the hook for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The Pentagon chief suggested that these strikes were a one-off, and only time will tell which of Trump’s preferences prevail.

Deft diplomacy will also be necessary to reduce the risks of wider war. It doesn’t help that Trump is undermining the nuclear deal with Iran at the same time as he is ratcheting up the stakes in Syria. One key determinant now is how much Russia is willing to add action to match its relentless campaign of lies and bluster about Syria and chemical weapons. Another is whether Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah are willing to sit on their hands after these strikes. In the past, all three have been willing to refrain from action despite angry promises.

* * *

The problem is the context. Any American action in the Middle East ought to be embedded in a comprehensive, engaged strategy—which is not likely to be forthcoming. Today, we can be sure that America’s significant moves—from proposals to withdraw military assets fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to promises to degrade the capabilities of Bashar al-Assad or limit the reach of Hezbollah or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—will land à la carte, increasing the danger of miscalculation and violent, destabilizing escalation.

At stake is how to manage disorder in the Middle East, and more important still, where to draw the line with a resurgent Russia.

Containing rival powers is an art, not a science. Military planners talk about the “escalation ladder” as if it were a chemical equation, but in reality escalation hinges on unpredictable questions of politics, interests, psychology, hard power, and willingness to deploy it.

Obama’s strategy could most simply be understood as a desire to contain regional fires with minimal involvement, while keeping an equal distance from regional antagonists, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, and difficult regional allies including Turkey and Israel. The U.S. got involved in the fight against ISIS, by this logic, with minimal resources and local alliances that it knew couldn’t outlive the immediate counter-terrorism operation.

In the Syrian context, Obama early on made clear that the United States commitment to principles of democracy and human rights would remain primarily rhetorical. Today, the United States has discarded even many of the rhetorical trappings of American exceptionalism. Trump has made clear that he doesn’t apply a moral calculus to superpower behavior. But he’s also expressed personal outrage about Syria’s use of chemical weapons—and he visibly takes umbrage at being personally embarrassed or humiliated.

Whether one thinks it’s wise or fully baked, President Trump also has a Middle East strategy. He wants to reduce America’s footprint, and disown any responsibility for the region’s wars, as if America played no role in starting them and suffers no strategic consequence from their trajectory. He wants to outsource regional security management to regional allies. Most of this is continuous with Obama’s approach, except when it comes to regional alliances; Obama attempted a “pox on both your houses” balance among all of America’s difficult allies. In his biggest departure from his predecessor, Trump has tilted fully to the Saudi Arabian side of the regional dispute, and has erased what little daylight separated American and Israeli priorities in the Middle East.

This is the bedrock of Trump’s moves in the region—moves that are all the more consequential because they are overtly about confronting, or trying to check, Iran and Russia.

* * *

The United States has a critical national interest in reestablishing the chemical weapons taboo. It also has countless other equities in the Middle East that require sustained attention and investment, of diplomatic, economic, and military resources. A short list of the most urgent priorities includes preventing the resurgence of ISIS or its successors; supporting governance in Iraq; limiting the reach and power of militias supported by Iran; and reversing the destabilizing human and international strategic toll of the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. A major regional war will only make things worse.

Given the stated priorities of the president, the most realistic possibility is an incomplete, and possibly destabilizing policy of confrontation, containment, and reestablishment of international norms.

But a reckoning can’t be deferred forever. Iran has been surging further and further afield in the Middle East, to great effect. Russia has been testing the West’s limits mercilessly since the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. At some point, the United States and its allies will stand up to this expansionist behavior, although there’s wide latitude about where to set limits. When the West, or some subset of NATO, does confront Russian ambitions, there’s no pat set of rules to keep us safe. Such confrontations are inevitable, and dangerous, and unpredictable. The best we can do is enter into them carefully, with as many strong allies as possible, and clearly stated, limited expectations about what we intend to accomplish.

The United States and its allies also need to more carefully distinguish things they dislike (Iranian influence in Iraq) from things they won’t tolerate (Hezbollah and Iran building permanent military infrastructure in the Golan). Rhetoric in the region often conflates the two. Israeli officials, for instance, talk about “intolerable” developments in Syria, but in practice their security policy often allows for a great deal of ambiguity about just what level of military threat they’re willing to tolerate along their frontiers. Iran, Hezbollah, and now Russia have made grandiose claims about retaliating if the United States takes action, but after past strikes by both the United States and Israel, the actual response has been quite restrained.

The United States and its allies need to set limited, achievable goals. The U.S. might for instance stand firm against the use of chemical weapons, or against new military campaigns against sovereign states, but it can’t very well seek to turn back the clock to a Syria free of Russian and Iranian influence.

In addition, the United States can help the world remember who is the author of this dangerous impasse: Syria, Iran, and Russia, who have serially transgressed the laws of war, lied in international forums, and mocked countless agreements, including the shambolic deal that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical weapons in 2013. This won’t justify American actions or give them political cover, but it is a key reason why we’re in such a difficult position in the first place. Despite American restraint, or even American willingness to tolerate war crimes by Syria and its allies, Syria and its allies have insisted on pushing past every limit and exhausting the world’s willingness to turn a blind eye toward abuses so long as those abuses stay within national boundaries.

Finally, to have any impact at all the United States will need to pay consistent and sustained attention. Russia, Syria, and Iran have gotten away with murder, literally, and have found themselves able to run circles around Western governments that still care to some extent about international norms and institutions. They are dangerous, but they are far weaker than their words would suggest. The West cannot deter every action it does not like, yet it can draw boundaries and impose a cost—but it must do so consistently.

This weekend’s strikes have established a bar and set a perilous, but unavoidable, process in motion. What counts is what comes next.