How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Few expected the United States to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun with a direct military attack. But U.S. President Donald Trump has done so, apparently without a strategic plan or desired outcome for the now seven-year-old war in Syria. At this point, it is unclear whether the strikes will be followed by other action or whether the United States would respond the same way to a future chemical attack. As a result of this uncertainty, the war’s end is now likely even further off.
The strike on the Shayrat airfield, which involved 59 Tomahawk missiles, came after the U.S. military tracked a Syrian aircraft that had attacked a rebel-held town in northern Idlib province back to the base. The reactions from Syria and Russia, the Assad regime’s main benefactor, have been severely critical.
Meanwhile, the balance of power on the ground in Syria remains the same, except for the fact that Assad has fresh incentive to demonstrate that he is fully capable of striking his opponents. Although he is now more deterred from engaging in a fresh chemical attack, the regime needs to show it remains in control. It likely believes traditional conventional weapons attacks will not provoke a forceful response from the Trump administration. Thus, more barrel bombs aimed at the Syrian people are likely in the offing. All the while, it remains unclear whether the United States will continue to strike Syrian forces, reengage in diplomacy, or go back to the status quo ante.
Even if the attack had been a more effective deterrent, of course, it would have been immediately neutered by the Trump administration’s failure to spell out a specific strategy undergirding the strike. For example, had the Trump administration laid out specific criteria for further strikes and signaled that it would begin fresh diplomatic efforts to reinstate a countrywide ceasefire and pressure Russia to bring Assad to heel, the deterrent effect would have been amplified. But absent such clear strategic plans, and with Russian officials already dismissing the attack as a one-off knee-jerk reaction, the Assad regime is likely to be only mildly deterred—and not for long. Moreover, Russia will remain thoroughly undeterred in its rampant use of conventional weaponry to target both civilians and opposition forces.
Beyond changing little on the ground for the Assad regime, the U.S. gambit will negatively affect the campaign against ISIS, starting with Russia and possibly moving also to Turkey. Russia, which backs Assad, harshly criticized the strike. A Kremlin spokesman quoted Putin as declaring that the attacks were a “significant blow” to U.S.–Russian relations. The strike, coming on the heels of harsh words aimed at Russia from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, has plunged U.S.–Russian relations into a tailspin. Cooperation between the two countries, such as efforts to avoid interfering in each other’s air campaigns, is now at an effective end, as Russia has canceled further deconfliction efforts. Collaboration on the Syrian diplomatic track is also likely finished, since there is as yet no indication that Tillerson will use his upcoming meetings in Moscow to pressure the Russians about Syria.
As troubling as the sudden strike might be, it is hard to deny that some action against Assad was warranted.
For its part, Turkey has been long in favor of a U.S. move against Assad and has repeatedly requested one. But lately, this critical NATO ally has been allying itself with Russia, conducting joint exercises and, in a widely reported move, limiting its opposition to the Assad regime in exchange for being allowed to target Kurds inside Syria. Turkey is also displeased with the United States for backing the Kurds and for refusing to extradite Turkish political and religious leader Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of attempting a coup against the government last summer. Turkey recently threatened to forbid the United States from using its Incirlik airbase, which is the top staging ground for the war against ISIS.
Meanwhile, cooperation between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian regime forces against ISIS is likely to end. In yet another twist in this dizzyingly complex conflict, over the past couple of months, the Kurdish-dominated SDF and the Syrian army have coordinated in several instances against ISIS forces in northern Syria. Ending this cooperation is one of the few tangible ways the Assad regime can make the United States pay for its attack on the airbase.
In terms of other actors in the region, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are in full support of the U.S. action; the Saudi government was among the first countries to offer praise. The Saudis have been pushing the United States to make such a move for years, and they are eager for Washington to engage in an even more sustained effort. It is possible that the strike will propel forward the new so-called “Gulf NATO”—a novel Sunni-led initiative to form a Gulf state coalition force that critics have panned as a paper tiger. The Gulf states have been expected to increase their support for Syrian opposition forces in proportion to the U.S.’s withdrawal of support.
Iran, on the other hand, has condemned the attack, warning that it will “strengthen terrorists” and add to “the complexity of the situation in Syria and the region.” There is no effective means in place to deter Iran from continuing,and even doubling down on its support for Assad’s regime and forces.
As troubling as the missile strike might be, it is hard to deny that some action against Assad was warranted. The regime is responsible for a brutal war waged against Syrian opposition fighters and hundreds of thousands of civilians. And it has colluded with Russia to weaponize refugees and thereby destabilize Europe. If Trump were to follow the attack with a strategy to compel the Russians to pressure Assad to return to the negotiating table, it could end up being a productive move. For example, the United States would need to credibly threaten Russia with additional strikes were it to resist this applied pressure. But such a commitment seems unlikely, for less than a week ago the Trump administration announced that it would no longer seek to remove the Assad regime.
In fact, this attack bears all the hallmarks of a red herring, a move to shift the attention of the public and media away from the controversy around Trump’s possible ties with Russia. After all, the Syrian regime has conducted other chemical attacks in recent months, including since Trump took office—and none of them has motivated Trump to move more forcefully against Assad. The missile strike is also designed to make the Obama administration look weak. If the U.S. and its allies had moved against Assad in 2013, the strengthening of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist groups, the aggrandizement of Russia, the destabilization of Europe, and of course the harsh price paid by the Syrian people would more than likely have been avoided. Obama, along with his French and British counterparts, could have helped the now-feckless Free Syrian Army topple the Assad regime without considerable difficulty—at the time, the rebels were flush with American and Gulf support, sizable, and merely in need of Western allies to destroy the same airbase targeted this week and two others to give them what military analysts at the time judged to be sufficient.
For now, the administration has claimed that it is not changing its overall approach to Syria. But if the United States does not augment the strike with further measures, neither will Syria or Russia’s strategies change—or, for that matter, the strategies of any other foe or friend. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is proving to be a major foreign policy test for Trump, and it is far from clear that he is passing it. The strike on Syria appears to be political rather than strategic. And for that reason, it is unlikely to achieve U.S. interests in Syria or bring the war to a more rapid conclusion.