Five points about Friday’s Syria strike

1. It’s not over

The Trump administration has made clear that Friday’s strike was a one-off intended to (1) degrade the ability of Damascus to produce high-quality chemical weapons and (2) deter the regime from the further use of chemical weapons.

I’ll discuss whether these objectives were achieved below, but an initial point is that “degrading” is not “destroying” – hence the ongoing need for deterrence. That in turn implies a U.S. willingness to launch additional strikes should Damascus again use chemical weapons. Which is what U.S. and allied officials are saying – there will be more strikes if Damascus doesn’t get the message.

There is, however, an important ambiguity about the deterrence signal sent yesterday (more on this below). It’s not clear if the redline for the U.S. and its allies is the use of any chemical agent specifically banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (notably the nerve agent Sarin) or the use of any chemical weapon covered by the Treaty’s general prohibition (notably chlorine).

Chlorine is very easy to manufacture and easy to disperse using barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. The regime has used it on numerous occasions, both before and after the Trump-ordered strike last year. That strike came after the regime’s use of Sarin in an attack on Khan Shaykhun.

Despite the unusual claims from Washington that it had sent an unmistakable message to Damascus, chlorine attacks continued. The Trump administration allowed them to pass without military action. It could therefore be inferred that the West’s redline was either a large, mass casualty attack (which is what Western publics and media apparently assumed) or a listed chemical agent but not chlorine.

That inference was, on balance, reinforced by the Western response to the Douma attack this past week. It was immediately clear that chlorine was used in the attack, since people on the ground reported a chlorine-like smell, but it appeared that an agent more lethal than chlorine was also involved because of the symptoms of the many victims. (See the French government report on the Douma attack here.) However, the use of an additional agent, or just what it was, has not been confirmed.

Nonetheless, to my knowledge no Western government has made the chlorine/Sarin distinction explicit. That makes it all the more likely that Damascus will, sooner-or-later (probably sooner), test this ambiguity by again using chlorine. It may begin with a small attack on an out-of-the way place, and then ratchet it up. If it does, I doubt that the U.S., French, and British governments will turn a blind eye again – I doubt their publics, and the media, will let them off the hook on the dubious grounds that there’s a legal difference between using Sarin and chlorine to kill lots of people.

It is also possible that the regime will again choose to use Sarin – it may still be able to manufacture it, and it may have Sarin stored somewhere. Employing chemical weapons is a way for it to exert its sovereignty, including its sovereignty from Russia. It also puts it in a position to manipulate Moscow by reminding it that it could get Russia into a war with the United States if, for example, Moscow pressures it to accept a political settlement that it finds unacceptable.

So, sooner-or-later, we are very likely to see more Western strikes.

2. Russia’s military presence has made a “shock and awe” US/allied strike less likely

Yesterday’s strike was limited to three targets and was designed to minimize the risk of Russian casualties or the use of Russia’s land-based or naval air defense systems. The United States doesn’t want a military conflict with Russia in Syria, with all the risks of escalation, both in theater and out, that that would entail. Had Russian regular forces, and especially Russia’s air defense systems, not been present, I think it’s very likely that this attack, as well as the one last year, would have been more substantial, possibly much more substantial.

3. Russia is playing a weak military hand in Syria

The strike yesterday made clear that the U.S. and its allies can get a great deal of ordinance into Syria very quickly and on target. (A summary of the assets used can be found here.)

One of the key military questions in Syria – and indeed elsewhere – is the efficacy of the Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) air defense systems. My impression is that U.S. and Israeli military planners are confident (this may be hubris, of course) that they can defeat Russian air defenses without too much difficulty. In particular, they don’t think Russian air defenses would be effective against American stealth aircraft, including the U.S.’s new, very stealthy multi-purpose fighter, the F-35. (Israel now has a great many F-35s, albeit with no combat experience.) Also noteworthy is the fact that the U.S. JASSM-ERs used yesterday are long-range air-launched cruise missiles with “stealthy” attributes – presumably not as stealthy as F-35s, but stealthy nonetheless.

Hopefully, we will never find out how effective the S-400 is. But even if Russian radar can locate U.S.-made stealth aircraft, and even if Russian SAMs can then bring them down, consider how many air defense missiles would have to be used to defeat potentially hundreds of relatively cheap air, sea, and land-based cruise missiles. That is especially the case with a prolonged air campaign, even one that used stand-off strikes only. Consider also that Syria is a pretty large country; that the Russian S-400 system is in Khmeimim, some 65 miles from Homs and 130 miles from Damascus with the Latakia Mountains in between; that cruise missiles can be programmed to hug the ground while JASSMs are stealthy; and that many of the cruise missiles yesterday came from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, to the south and southeast.

In short, it strikes me as very likely that Russian military planners assume their air defenses in Syria would have little success mitigating a Western stand-off strike targeting regime assets. They may feel marginally confident that they could shoot down some cruise missiles closer to their air and naval facilities in Khmeimim and Tartus.

That’s only part of Russia’s military exposure problem in Syria, however. The conflict zone is a long way from Russian territory. It’s naval supply lines pass through the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and the Straits of Gibraltar, which can be bottled up by the U.S. even if Turkey, its NATO ally, stays out of a fight. It has nowhere near the airlift capabilities of the U.S., and in a conflict it would almost certainly be unable to control the airspace enough to get transport aircraft to the battle zone.

Beyond that, its military assets in Syria are quite limited – it has an estimated 2000 ground troops in the country, about the same as the United States. Its limited aviation assets are technologically very inferior to the U.S.’s, and they likely wouldn’t last long in a hot conflict.

Likewise, it has a significant fleet of naval vessels in the Mediterranean – there are satellite images showing eleven Russian naval vessels putting to sea from Tartus earlier this week. Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean are far from Russia’s coastal defense, would again be quickly destroyed in a hot conflict (its submarines not as quickly). They might well manage to take some U.S. or allied naval vessels with them, but the U.S. and its coalition allies (leaving aside the rest of NATO) have a huge preponderance of power in the Mediterranean.

Additionally, Moscow now has to consider that (1) the Trump administration has given the U.S. military more freedom of action than did the Obama administration; (2) the U.S. military made clear in the Deir ez-Zour incident that it would kill Russians if necessary to defend its troops; (3) Trump has ordered stand-off strikes on Syria twice, with more likely ahead; (4) Trump is extremely unpredictable; (5) his rhetoric about Russia has changed in recent weeks; (6) Moscow does not control Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, or the various other regime-allied militias; and (7) Russian military planners are going to have to make force dispositions that account for additional Western strikes.

These challenges come against a backdrop of having a great deal of face at stake in Syria.

4. Russia’s options

All of this gives the U.S. and its allies “escalation dominance” in Syria, in my view. That is, whatever Russia does to the coalition, the coalition can do to it and then some, and at less risk. (The military situation is very different close to Russia’s borders.)

Of course, it’s very unlikely a hot conflict between Russia and Western powers would be contained to that theater, and Russia would very likely respond in multiple domains, notably cyber. That’s why the risks of a hot conflict between Russia and the United States in Syria are so consequential – a game of escalation dominance between nuclear superpowers is an existential threat to both (and to others). But the point is that Russia is playing a weak military hand in Syria. That means it has to respond to what it views as Western excesses in Syria in ways that avoid a direct military conflict.

What, then, are its options? Answering that question is of course difficult, particularly given the Kremlin’s ability to think outside the box and to repeatedly wrong-foot the West. So what follows is offered with a low level of confidence.

In Syria, I think its options are pretty limited. It can try to make the U.S. position in the area controlled by the SDF in Syria’s northeast and east more difficult, but I don’t see how that would be easily accomplished. The U.S. destruction of the Vagner unit should have conveyed to the Kremlin that it would be unwise to threaten American troops directly. In particular, there has long been a de facto U.S./coalition enforced no fly zone east of the Euphrates and probably in Manbij, one that Russia may actually test but can’t really challenge. The Kremlin has to consider that it could be better off reducing tensions in the hopes that Trump will, as he tweeted, withdraw U.S. special operations troops assisting the SDF.

As for an out-of-theater response, I don’t think the Kremlin has many good military options left in Ukraine. However, one possibility is that it could provoke a crisis and then hit Ukraine with the same kind of stand-off strikes that the U.S. and its allies have carried out in Syria. Georgia is more militarily vulnerable than Ukraine, but its relations with Moscow have improved, and it isn’t clear why attacking Georgia would hurt or deter the United States. If Russia does go after Georgia, which I think is in fact pretty unlikely, it would likely do so in the hopes that doing so would provoke greater divisions within and among NATO member states.

Other military options include continuing to build up their offensive and defensive capabilities in Kaliningrad and Crimea; abandoning the INF treaty and increasing its ability to deliver nuclear weapons quickly throughout Western Europe; refusing to extend the New-START strategic nuclear treaty with the United States, and so on.

The problem for the Kremlin, however, is that while all these measures create problems for the West, they don’t, in my view, enhance Russian security. On the contrary, they make Russia’s security problems worse, as I’ve argued in previous posts.

Beyond that, the Russians are continuing to try to think outside the box about how to respond, both symmetrically and asymmetrically, to Western pressure. The Russian parliament is considering a new sanctions bill that would, among other things, include a ban on exports of titanium to the United States. But the titanium ban is indicative of Russia’s problem. It would doubtless be a problem for Boeing – its stock fell 1.2% after the announcement on Friday. But presumably Boeing can buy titanium elsewhere. Moreover, while 40% of Russian titanium aircraft parts last year was sold to Boeing, 60% was sold to Airbus, and it seems unlikely Airbus or other aircraft manufactures would be interested in picking up the Boeing 40%. And if they did, it would free up titanium from other suppliers for purchase by Boeing.

In short, Russia is playing a losing game on the sanctions front. The game is negative sum – all parties lose – but Russia loses more because the United States and Western Europe have much more leverage over it than it has over the West.

Accordingly, much the most effective way for the Kremlin to “punish” the West is to step up its general disruption campaign – that is, keep opportunistically trying to find ways to just make everything worse, particularly in areas where the West has more to lose than Russia. For example, on Friday, the Duma took up a bill that allows the government to waive copyright restrictions on foreign products. As Mikhail Emelyanov, the deputy chairman of the Duma’s Legislation Committee, explained:

“In other words, we’ll gut-punch the Americans, since it’s precisely intellectual property that is responsible for all their success and, above all, the domination of the Anglo-Saxon and Western world. And we’d strike a blow against this right.”

The Kremlin can also step up Russia’s cyber hacking activities and influence operations against the United States, “Old Europe,” and especially “New Europe,” where liberalism and the European project are already in deep trouble.

It might also decide the time had come to start targeting Trump. It’s hard to believe it doesn’t have at least some kompromaton the U.S. president involving his business dealings. They may also have pee-pee tape-type material that would be very embarrassing and politically damaging for Trump.

At any rate, the point is that Russia has lots of creative ways to respond asymmetrically to Western military operations in Syria. Its problem is that many of those responses hurt it as much or more than they hurt the U.S. But some don’t. And the Kremlin probably continues to bank on the Russian people’s high pain tolerance and its approval of Putin standing up to the meddlesome West.

5. The bluster risk

There has been an excess of bluster, both before and after the strike, from almost all parties to the conflict, but particularly worrisome is the threatening language out of Washington and Moscow. Doubtless most memorable was Trump’s tweet before the strike, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” One of the “vows” Trump referred to came from the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, who not only threatened to shoot down any U.S. or allied missiles heading into Syria, but to destroy their launch platforms as well – i.e., U.S. and allied naval vessels and aircraft. This weekend, the Russian ambassador to Washington claimed that a “pre-designed scenario is being implemented,” that Russia is “being threatened,” that “such actions will not be left without consequences,” and “insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible.”

On balance, Russia’s bluster is the more alarming because, for reasons I’ve already explained, it is going to have a very difficult time backing them up. Additionally, the Kremlin has a considerable and growing “boy who cried wolf problem,” and not just in Syria. But Trump’s bluster is also a risk favor, including his post-strike “Mission Accomplished” tweet.

If Trump was referring only to the strike mission, his claim would be correct. But if the mission was to “degrade and deter,” the tweet is at best marginally correct with regard to “degrade,” and unlikely to prove correct with respect to “deter.”

Other American officials have also been exaggerating the efficacy of the strike – Mike Pence, for example, claimed that it had “crippled” Syria’s chemical weapons capability.

The reality is that, while it’s possible the attack on Syria’s Barzah facility in Damascus “crippled” Syria’s ability to produce sophisticated chemical agents like Sarin, there’s no guarantee. Damascus may have production facilities elsewhere, it may have nerve agent stockpiles, and it may decide to rebuild production and research facilities close to Russia’s air defense systems.

Moreover, as Tobias Schneider argued in an informative tweet thread over the weekend, “the April 7 Douma attack – as far as we can tell – did not come out of that tightly controlled [Barzah] complex. It was part of a five years-long campaign built around improvised Chlorine (less lethal choking agent) bombs waged by certain Syrian Air Force factions.” In other words, we don’t even know if the strike hit any facility that was involved in the Douma attack.

Regardless, it’s clear that the strike didn’t “cripple” Syria’s ability to produce and deliver chlorine.

A final point on the “bluster” problem. The Syrian regime appears to be deliberately taunting Washington. For example, in a meeting with Russian lawmakers today in Damascus, Assad claimed: “The American movies since the 1990s that Russian-made weapons are ‘backward.’ However, today we can see who is lagging behind.” It seems the regime has interpreted the strike not as a warning but as a political win that demonstrates Syrian and Russian resolve and military prowess on the one hand, and American weakness on the other. That, I think, is a very good way to increase the likelihood that the next U.S. and allied strike is much powerful, one that might well go after regime command and control facilities and even its leadership in Damascus.

In sum, all the bluster and the rhetorical overreach only add to the risk of escalation down the road.

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