Will They or Won't They? Weighing Responses to Syrian Chemical Attacks

So Trump wants to pull out of Syria but then there was a chemical attack in Douma and now we’re staying? And also Russia and Iran are involved? Welcome back.

So last Wednesday, April 4th, Trump announced we were going to pull out of Syria. Although he wanted to pull all 2,000 troops out immediately, he walked it back and said “soon!” when “the generals” told him they needed time to finish beating ISIS. 6 months at most! But three days later there was a chemical gas attack in Douma, a town in Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, putting Trump in an awkward position. About a year ago in 2017, Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to a previous chemical attack to prove that he would act where Obama hesitated in order to signal that chemical weapons use truly did represent a red line. But, clearly, it didn’t work. Between those cruise missiles and 118 air strikes over the last year, the Assad regime has continued to perpetrate gas attacks, using chlorine and sarin.

Trump’s instinct is to pull out – he doesn’t want to be involved, and neither does his base – but he keeps getting dragged back. French President Emmanuel Macron’s strong statements about consequences has put pressure on Trump’s ego, resulting in some angry tweets that also implicated Russia and Iran for enabling Assad. This is one of Trump’s first open criticisms of Putin and Russia, so that in itself is a big deal. But moreover, Russia has come out and said that the chemical attack was a false flag, staged to justify western intervention in Syria, and that any further military action would be a potential act of war. 

So is this attack legitimate or a false flag? Let’s look at motivation. Macron has been careful to announce only very specific responses and strikes meant to specifically cripple chemical weapon capabilities – nothing else. And Trump clearly wants out, having stated so many times and even announced the exit before walking it back. So the Western leaders at the forefront of the response want to be LESS involved – further evidenced by Trump’s initial statement on Monday that there would be swift consequences within two days, and again on Wednesday saying that missiles would fly, telling Russia to “get ready” before saying on Thursday that he “never said when an attack on Syria would take place”. 

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On the other hand, Assad has been steadily quashing rebellion and driving rebels out of various strongholds. The fighting in Eastern Ghouta was one of the last holdouts, and Douma the site of a final stand. Assad had two options: fight through the city block by block, or bathe the city in gas. He chose the more barbaric, effective method, killing 46 and injuring over 500. And indeed, the last rebels evacuated Douma today. So either there’s some vast conspiracy amongst western governments who have repeatedly demonstrated reticence to go to bat in Syria in order to justify an intervention no one wants to perform, or we have a brutal dictator with a history of chemical weapons use choosing the fastest method of killing the very people he’s been killing since 2011. You tell me which is more likely.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will do anything, but any action would need to be more violent than 59 cruise missiles and 118 air strikes, because that hasn’t yet been enough to achieve what the West supposedly wants. Both Secretary of State-to-be Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton are both tough on Iran, the containment of which has been a longstanding goal of US military strategy in the Middle East, so that could factor into Trump’s calculus on whether or not to strike, instead of solely in response to a human rights violation.

The biggest risk is a potential flash point for conflict with Russia. As Mueller closes in on Trump, it’s possible that Trump is turning on Russia to put distance between himself and his erstwhile boo, Putin. The worst case scenario is a provocation in Syria that escalates into open conflict in order to distract from the investigation. But, Trump could be contained by a base that opposes further involvement in Syria. There are a lot of moving parts, and I’m honestly not sure Trump is strategic enough to keep them all in the air, but any piece of this could end up dictating the future of Syria and US-Russian relations. #fpf

UPDATE: 9am, 4/14/18

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The US, UK, and France launched an attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities last night, claiming victory and success this morning. Syria, Russia, and Iran have all denounced the attacks as illegal, and said there would be repercussions, but despite Russia's assurance that it would shoot down missiles entering Syrian airspace, over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles hit Syrian territory without no resistance. For context, that's 66% more missiles than a year ago, but let's look at how effective that was: the air field they bombed in 2017 was operational within just one day of the attack, and fully so within three days. So, this is unlikely to do much, though the Western allies have pledged further retaliation if chemical weapons are used again. It's a harsher consequence, so Trump kept up the appearance of toughness, but endangered no Russian lives, and so avoided WWIII. Is it likely to stop Assad though? No. We still need to watch this. #fpf