Commentary Magazine

The Extraordinarily High Stakes in Syria

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

U.S.-led retaliatory strikes on Syria are imminent. The president said so himself. On Twitter. In fact, he went into wildly imprudent detail about the forthcoming military action, describing the type of ordnance that would be used and confirming that Russia has threatened to target American assets in defense of its Syrian patron.

Donald Trump’s decision to accentuate Moscow’s threats and Russia’s relationship to the regime he intends to target places appropriate emphasis on the real stakes of America’s coming mission. But neither the president nor his administration is making a compelling case to the country as to why our deepening involvement in Syria is in America’s national interest. Those interests are as clear as they are critical.

The Trump administration established a precedent in April of 2017 with its strikes on Syrian targets following Damascus’s gruesome release of sarin nerve gas on civilians. Breaking with the last administration, this president made it clear that the use of prohibited and indiscriminate weapons will not be tolerated. That precedent evolved into a doctrine when the administration publicly threatened the Bashar al-Assad regime in June of 2017 following reports indicating that another mass casualty gas attack was in the planning stages. The threats worked; Assad backed down, and a mutually understood set of parameters had been established.

The tacit exemption both Trump and Barack Obama adopted for dual-use chemicals ensured that the Assad regime would deploy chlorine gas on civilian targets frequently and that stronger nerve agents would eventually be used again. In 2017, both Damascus and Moscow, which operates a number of sophisticated air-defense batteries across the country, all but consented to a relatively bloodless strike on a single target (Russia received forewarning ahead of the attack). They will likely stand down in the face of something similar in 2018. If, however, the United States is disinclined to pursue cosmetic and superficial strikes on Syrian targets—which would have no deterrent effect on Bashar al-Assad or anyone else, for that matter—Russia will face increasingly serious pressure to respond militarily.

Russia can only stand down so many times before the value of its S-400 anti-air batteries—which Moscow is right now attempting to sell to India in violation of U.S. sanctions—begins to depreciate. Russia’s envoy to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, probably expressed the prevailing sentiments in the Kremlin when he said Russia would attempt to shoot down U.S. missiles in flight if America and its allies were to attempt any broader retaliatory response to Assad’s chemical attack on civilians. More frightening still, Zasypkin also intimated that Russia would attempt to respond disproportionately, potentially targeting U.S. ships and aircraft. These may not be the empty threats of one diplomat. In the last 24 hours, Russia has begun jamming U.S. unmanned vehicles over Syrian skies, harassing French warships in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, and engaging in snap naval exercises near U.S. maritime assets.

Moscow has no interest in inaugurating a broader war with the West. It would almost certainly lose that costly conflict, but it does not have to limit its response to direct action in the Syrian theater. Moscow might turn up the temperature in Eastern Ukraine, increase support for Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, augment aid to the North Korean and Iranian regimes, harass NATO’s air and sea assets, violate NATO airspace, or all of the above. Given the risks associated with a retaliatory strike on Assad, why should the U.S. chance it? Unfortunately, the Trump administration has almost no choice.

The White House now feels enormous political pressure—both at home and abroad—to maintain the precedent that the administration established last April. That means that the next round of punitive strikes will have to be more expansive to be effective, or there will be more chemical attacks and not just in Syria. That would be a disaster. American soldiers are deployed all over the world, often in nations with weak governments engaged in civil hostilities. Any number of illegitimate regimes would like to deploy with plausible deniability these cheap and relatively ubiquitous weapons of mass destruction. The erosion of the prohibitions around chemical warfare will mean that more Americans are exposed to these agents, and even casual contact can be hazardous (as U.S. soldiers who were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq can attest).

In the last 13 months alone, two state-sponsored chemical attacks (attributable to Russia and North Korea, respectively) using nerve agents were executed on foreign soil, poisoning many civilians in the process. This is reckless, and it can lead to a spiraling crisis. Reestablishing deterrence is in America’s vital national interest. At the moment, that would likely mean disabling anything in the Assad regime’s possession that can fly, as well as targeting chemical production and storage facilities. This mission must be broad in scope if America’s strategic objective is to be achieved.

As for those who fret that America is preparing to enter into a disastrous new war in the Middle East in pursuit of the ill-fated neoconservative preoccupation with “regime change,” fret not. We have been at war in and over Syria for the last three and a half years. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been drawn deeper into that conflict despite their ideological aversion to it. That should tell you something; certain unavoidable hard-power realities compel the U.S. to engage in the containment of this terrible conflict in a strategically critical part of the world.

As for regime change, that is likely a moot point. The Assad regime functionally does not exist in many parts of the country, including where most American troops are stationed: east of the Euphrates River. In fact, the conflict in Syria long ago shifted from a counterterrorism mission to an effort to stabilize a failed state. But that mission is shared by a number of competing powers, some of which have limited mechanisms established to facilitate communication in the event of a crisis.

Imagine a post-World War II Germany but without a Potsdam Conference that established firmly delineated zones of control. Instead, those zones are vague and fluid, and each power is testing the other to see where its freedom of action ends and another’s begins. This is an unthinkably dangerous condition; the risk of an accident or miscalculation triggering a broader great power conflict is extraordinarily high. Establishing a semi-formal occupation regime is in the interest of world peace. Pretending we can avoid engagement in that project is a dangerous exercise in self-delusion.

The United States is obliged to act. Russia is probably obliged to respond. This could be the crisis from which neither power can back down without sacrificing an unacceptable level of prestige and strategic initiative. But that was the course on which the country was set following five misguided years dedicated to avoiding involvement in the Syrian conflict. The bill for all those years of non-interventionism is coming due.

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