The fear imbalance
One notable aspect of the Syria drama is the imbalance in fear levels between the United States and Russia. The Russian media has been full of warnings about a US-Russian military clash and the impending outbreak of World War III. Russian professional analysts have likewise been very alarmist. To cite but one example: Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian foreign policy specialist and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote a piece for the Foreign Policy website subtitled, “Trump’s latest airstrikes are a new U.S.-Russian missile crisis that risks devastating escalation.”
By contrast, I don’t remember a single reference to World War III on American television, or even to the possibility that Syria could lead to a major conventional or nuclear war with Russia. American specialist and security officials are rather more alarmed, but as Trenin suggests, most still appear confident that the risk of a major U.S.-Russia war breaking out in Syria is low because the United States and its allies have such a preponderance of force in the eastern Mediterranean.
My take is the same as it has been for some time with respect to the risks of war between Russia and the United States: a significant risk of something catastrophic is worth worrying about, and it would be a terrible error to sleepwalk into disaster. But the point I want to make here is that I have the impression that the fear level about Syria in the American public is quite low. It seems to be somewhat higher in the U.K., France, and other European countries, but still much less than in Russia.
This fear imbalance has, I suppose, one benefit for the Kremlin, which is that fear of World War III enhances the “atmosphere of crisis and attack” that helps Putin’s popularity and regime legitimacy (at least for now – mobilization regimes tend to run out of gas eventually).
But it is also a problem. The Kremlin wants fear levels high in the West, for obvious reasons. I suspect Russian decision-makers would be surprised at how little fear there is, and how little coverage of Syria there’s been except briefly before and after the strikes. The crisis has been crowded out by relentless coverage of the Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, James Comey, and all the other Trump-related drama. It is orders of magnitude lower than it was, for example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the comparison suggested by Trenin).
Trenin writes, “There is… no heightened fear of a nuclear Armageddon, which has the paradoxical effect of making it far easier to slide beyond the point of no return.” I think that is correct, but it’s much more true of the United States than of Russia. The irony is that a key reason for this unwarranted equanimity is the American public’s obsession with the Russia-enabled Trump phenomenon.
The US non-strategy problem
As many commentators have pointed out, Friday’s strike has changed little, politically and militarily, in Syria. We are for the most part where we were before. And part of where we were before is the absence of a coherent long-term U.S. strategy for resolving or managing the crisis.
My take on this correct claim is a little different than most, however. The implication of the argument is that there is a coherent strategy out there waiting to be found, and that once it is found the Syria tragedy will be solved.
If there is such a strategy, I have yet to see it.
To begin with, I don’t believe we have a battlefield outcome that can make a political settlement possible – we’re closer than we were, say, a year ago, but still a ways away, at best. So while it is important to keep trying, I don’t see diplomatic efforts at Geneva or elsewhere making much progress unless something significant and unexpected happens.
One basic problem for the United States is not only that Assad is staying; he also shows no signs of being willing to accept a territorial compromise allowing any opposition forces, including the U.S.-supported SDF, effective sovereignty over any part of Syrian territory. Damascus and its allies are, however, a very long way from restoring full sovereignty throughout Syria – indeed, I doubt that ever happens. If so, the fight for territorial control will continue.
I am also highly skeptical about the efficacy of greater U.S. and allied military involvement in the crisis. The best defense of this option I can recall is by Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic. Hamid argues (1) military action doesn’t equal regime change; (2) the U.S. has a great many military options short of a full-scale invasion; (3) not acting is acting and has the same moral implications; (4) not using force has been disastrous; and (5) claiming that advocates of military intervention have to “prove” that intervention will work is an unreasonable burden, especially given that non-intervention has already proven to be disastrous.
I agree with all Hamid’s points. What I don’t agree with is the implication that, given that non-intervention hasn’t worked, intervention will. The fact is that we are looking for the least-worst option, and it may well be that intervention makes matters worse, both within and outside Syria. Moreover, arguing for intervention because non-intervention hasn’t worked isn’t a strategy either.
I have been against a robust military intervention by the United States and its allies in Syria since the civil war broke out for at least two reasons. First, I doubt that it would prove limited in scale or duration. Second, I don’t think the American public would accept another open-ended, costly war, and occupation by American forces in the Middle East. The forever war in Afghanistan, and the blowback from Iraq, have had an impact. For good reason, the American public is wary of another big “war of choice” in the Middle East.
That said, I also thought that well-designed, careful, and time-limited air and missile strikes against Syrian military assets, along with limited boots on the ground (like those supporting the SDF) could, with luck, nudge diplomatic efforts in the right direction. That, however, would require realistic expectations about the unsatisfactory outcome of any political solution (unsatisfactory, but less unsatisfactory than the alternatives). It would also mean being very careful not to imply “ownership” of any Syria settlement, with all the risks of mission creep that would entail.
But this kind of “realistic realism” is not something the democratic United States is very good at.
Moreover, the risk calculation about a U.S./allied intervention clearly changed with Russia’s military engagement. I was reminded of this reading an impassioned article by Elliot Cohen this weekend. Cohen writes:
A slight slap preceded by bluster and followed by evasion and more bluster conveys a very precise message, actually, but not the one that the president believes and perhaps some of his advisers have now convinced themselves they have sent. It is that the commander in chief of the American armed forces is an impulsive coward. Real punishment for the purposes of deterring the Syrian regime and others from the use of poison gas would have been more like the fire and fury that President Bill Clinton rained down on Saddam Hussein in 1998. Operation Desert Fox lasted four days, did serious damage, and shook the Iraqi regime…
But as it is, Vladimir Putin has yet another piece of evidence that President Donald Trump will steer away from a direct confrontation with him, even though, in any kind of military conflict in the Middle East it would be the Russians, not the Americans, who by far would have the worst of it. He would secretly fear a president who would do that, because he knows that military humiliation has provoked the downfall of more than one czar in the past. So message received: The American enemy will posture and thump his chest, but is afraid to actually stand up to you, even though his air force could blow yours out of the sky and his navy sink yours to the bottom of the sea.
The problem with this argument is that it ignores, or at least minimizes, the risks and dangers of a military confrontation with Russia. I believe Cohen is correct about “blowing” the Russian air force out of the sky in Syria and sinking the Russian navy “to the bottom of the sea” in the Mediterranean. But Russia is not Syria, and Russia has lots of military options closer to its borders, including, if it were really pressed in Syria, attacking the Baltic republics.
Put differently, I don’t think it’s the least likely that blowing the Russian air force out of the skies of Syria or sinking Russian naval assets in the Mediterranean would be the end of it. Russia would respond elsewhere, including in cyber. And Russia has the great equalizer – lots of tactical, intermediate range, and strategic nuclear weapons.
So at the very least, any U.S. military operation in Syria is going to have to careful about provoking a very dangerous military confrontation with Russia.
That said, there is one military intervention strategy that, coupled with diplomatic efforts, might – eventually – force Assad, when battlefield conditions permit, to accept a territorial compromise. That strategy would be to launch limited missile and air strikes against Assad’s military, command and control, and/or leadership assets in a calibrated way.
For example, the United States, France, and the U.K. could make explicit that the next confirmed use of chemical attack, whether it be chlorine, sarin, or what have you, would lead to strikes on leadership targets in Damascus. They could also make explicit that those strikes would come unannounced, and at a time of allied choosing, not necessarily immediately after a chemical attack. That would in effect put Assad and his colleagues at risk, at a moment of American choosing, should Syria use a chemical agent again.
Another option would be to signal that the coalition will strike Syrian and Iranian military targets, again at the time of its choosing, if they don’t bring an end to a particular military operation or offensive.
In each instance, Washington could make clear that it wouldn’t launch strikes into Latakia province, where the bulk of Russia’s military assets are located. It would also make clear, like the Israelis, that it would try to avoid killing or wounding Russian regulars. But again like the Israelis, it wouldn’t guarantee that Russian soldiers, or Russian private military contractors, wouldn’t be killed outside of Latakia. That, of course, would entail a risk of a military confrontation and escalation, but I think the risk would be low.
So no “shock and awe,” but episodic, strategically calculated limited strikes, like the one of Friday. And like the ones Israel has been carrying out, albeit with different objectives.
For this to have a chance of contributing to a settlement, Washington would have to couple it with realistic diplomatic efforts. Washington could make clear that it’s willing to work with Russia, through the Geneva process, to enforce and build on the Russian-negotiated “de-escalation zones.” It would also have to make explicit that it isn’t conditioning a settlement on Assad’s departure (which is not going to happen) or “regime change” (also not going to happen – there is absolutely no way free and fair elections are going to be held across Syria for the foreseeable future). Finally, it could signal its willingness to accept Russia’s status as Damascus’s patron, and to Russia’s military presence in Syria going forward (something Washington can’t do anything about regardless).
I should stress the might in the first sentence of my earlier paragraph. The obstacles to a stable political settlement in Syria are many. And there is no prospect of a settlement, in my view, that does not entail a major presence in Syria of both Russia and Iran. The United States, its coalition allies, and Israel can probably live with the former. Not so much the latter. A lasting settlement, I suspect, is going to require either a U.S./Israeli accommodation with Teheran or a major change in Iranian policy. Neither seems likely.
The Israeli-Iran wildcard
As this suggests, a major wildcard in the Syria maelstrom is Israel’s interest in keeping Iran from establishing a dominant military and political position there.
At the time of Russia’s intervention, there were reports that Netanyahu had given Putin the green light for the Russian operation. If so, my reaction at the time was that Netanyahu would likely regret that decision.
My take was that Russian and Israeli decision-makers were probably both suffering from the same problem U.S. decision-makers have suffered from for years, which is excess confidence in their ability to impose their will in regional conflicts and civil wars. The Israelis apparently thought, or at least hoped, that Moscow could get Assad to accept some kind of territorial settlement that kept Iranian forces and Teheran’s proxies away from the Golan Heights. More importantly, they apparently thought, or hoped, that Moscow could limit Iran’s influence and military presence in Syria generally.
The former is and was possible, but I never thought the latter was the least likely. Once Moscow was engaged militarily, my take was that Damascus would have more leverage over Moscow than Moscow had over Damascus. I didn’t buy the argument that Moscow could get out quickly, or easily, given the extent to which Putin’s reputation for being a “winner” was at stake. Nor did I think the Russians had many political allies in Damascus willing to do its bidding – unlike, for example, in Kyiv in 2014 or in Belarus today.
Moscow has even less leverage over Iran. There is simply no way Teheran will allow Moscow to marginalize it in Syria. Iran’s ground forces and allied militias, including Hezbollah, were too important to the Syrian war effort, and Iran proxies and allies were too embedded in Syria’s Alawite-dominant regime. Assad might be able to kick the Russians out, but I very much doubt he can kick out the Iranians even if he wants to. Nor could the Russians prevent the flow of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Syria or Lebanon.
In short, Israel’s apparent gamble that Moscow could replace Teheran as Assad’s principal patron and minimize Iranian influence was very unlikely to pay off, and it hasn’t.
As a result, Israel is stuck with a severe security problem that is made worse by Russia’s presence. Israel has been ratcheting up airstrikes on Syria, targeting weapons depots, Syrian military assets (including Syrian air defenses), and Iranian forces and militias. It has made very clear that it won’t allow a political settlement that gives Iran a significant and permanent military presence in Syria. Nor will it accept a settlement that allows Teheran to dominate Damascus politically.
How this plays out is anyone’s guess, but my view is that a major Israeli ground and air campaign against Syria and/or against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is more likely than not in the next several years. If we do get that war, it’s quite possible we’ll see Israeli attacks on the Iranian mainland.
It will be difficult for Moscow to stay out of that fight if it happens. Moscow would be humiliated if it simply stood by and watched its Syrian proxy get pounded. Russia’s military options would, however, be limited. Israel would be confronting what it viewed as an acute security crisis, and while it would doubtless try to avoid Russian casualties, I doubt it would try too hard. And it would likely fly through Russia’s air defense bubbles and call its air defense bluff, confident that if it comes to showdown, it would prevail in Syrian airspace. And the Kremlin would be aware that, were it to threaten Israel with a nuclear strike, Israel has nuclear weapons and is implicitly under the American nuclear umbrella. Suffice to say that an Israeli-Russian showdown in Syria would, in fact, risk World War III.
Putin has already called Netanyahu on several occasions to warn him against military escalation, most recently on Wednesday after an Israeli airstrike in Homs that killed some 14 people, including several Iranians. Netanyahu has generally complied, and Israel, like the United States, has abided by its deconfliction agreement with Russia. But Netanyahu has also made clear that Israel will do what it needs to do to defend itself, and if push comes to shove it will carry out its military missions in Syria regardless of Russian protestations. And it will do so knowing that the Middle East is far from Russia, that it too has a nuclear deterrent, and that it can defeat Russia’s air defenses if it comes to it.
In short, Putin not only has to deal with an extremely unpredictable U.S. president, but he also has to worry about somewhat less unpredictable but very tough Israeli prime minister. And Israel has vital security interests at stake in Syria — much greater than Russia’s or the United States’.
The legal implications
There are two problems (among others) with the limited strike strategy I described above. It would illegal under U.S. law unless it’s authorized by Congress. Even more clearly, it would be illegal under international law.
The question of the legality of Friday’s strike under U.S. law has been the subject of some debate over the past week (as it always is when the president authorizes the use of force). To my mind, a convincing take on the issue was by Andrew Rudalevige in the Washington Poston April 13. After noting that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, he continued:
To be sure, past presidents have often used force without seeking prior congressional authority. But those circumstances generally had common characteristics not present in the Syrian case — something President Barack Obama’s lawyers ran up against as they tried to craft a rationale for striking that government after yet another chemical atrocity in 2013.
Back then, Donald Trump strongly felt that Obama should seek congressional approval. And the former head of George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, wrote that “an intervention in Syria would extend the president’s war powers under the Constitution beyond where they have gone before.” This is because in the past, when presidents have used force without legislative authority, they have been able to claim some measure of self-defense or international mandate. [Emphasis added.]
Rudalevige then shows how different administrations have justified the use of force under U.S. law since World War II.
As the last sentence in the above quote makes clear, one way the use of force has been justified is by reference to treaty obligations and international law. Rudalevige points out, however, that the 1973 War Powers Resolution “specifically rules out inferring authority to use force from treaty obligations.” The WPR is a resolution, however, not a law, but it does suggest the weakness of a claim that White House can ignore the Congressional right to declare war on the basis of a need to enforce, unilaterally, the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Nonetheless, it is true that Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been chipping away at limits on the executive’s war-making powers since 1941, the last time Congress formally declared war. In practice, the most significant “check” Congress has today is the power of the purse – that is, Congress can limit or end spending on a particular conflict. That, however, takes time. It is also usually very difficult politically because voters tend to see it as undermining American troops in harm’s way. Executive organs also have lots of discretion over spending, which to say, there ways to mitigate Congressional spending limits.
What is different about the Syria strike is that the Trump administration seems to have put a final nail in the coffin of Congress’s putative right to declare war. Basically, the White House’s argument is that theonly legal justification it needs in Syria or anywhere else is Article II of the Constitution, which describes the president as “Commander in Chief.” As Jack Goldsmith and Ooana Hathaway explain in a Lawfare post:
The Trump administration does not believe that either the 2001 or 2002 AUMF [EWW: the former is the Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force to go after the perpetrators of 9/11, the latter to attack Iraqi] is the domestic legal authorization for these strikes. Although it has offered no official legal argument for the strikes, Defense Secretary James Mattis made crystal clear that he believed Article II alone was the basis:
“As our commander in chief, the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests. The United States has an important national interest in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.”
This is the very constitutional rationale that, as we explained in our prior post, permits the president “to use air power unilaterally basically whenever he sees fit.” [Emphasis added.]
There has been very comparatively little discussion in the media about the implications of the strike for international law, doubtless because at this “American First” moment international law seems out of fashion. But as with Congress’s war powers, the strike may have put the final nail in the coffin of the UNSC’s role in authorizing the use of force.
The U.N. charter allows member-states to use force against other states under two conditions only: in their own self-defense or in defense of their treaty allies (the latter sometimes rendered as “consent”); or with a Security Council mandate. After the end of the Cold War, the international community wrestled over whether “humanitarian interventions” under a “responsibility to protect” doctrine might be understood as giving states the right to use force unilaterally to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. There is, however, a broad consensus that any RtP-justified military operation has to receive a UNSC mandate to be legal.
With that in mind, contrast what happened on Friday with the 2011 multinational intervention in Libya, which received a (controversial) UNSC authorization after a great deal of political arm twisting by United States, the U.K., and France to avoid a Chinese or Russian veto (both abstained). Consider also the enormous controversy over the (failed) effort by the United States to secure a UNSC authorization for the 2003 Iraq War. In that instance, and to my knowledge in every other instance in which the United States used force without a UNSC mandate after World War II, Washington offered a self-defense justification. The claim was often implausible, but at least there was an attempt at legal justification.
As Goldsmith and Hathaway point out, the Trump Administration hasn’t even attempted to justify the attack under international law. The authors also go through the various arguments that might be offered (including the “humanitarian intervention” justification offer by Britain), and they point out why each is entirely implausible.
So two takeaways from this.
First, I suspect it will be a long time before the United States or any other member-state goes back to the UNSC for a mandate to use force anywhere. Given the current international atmosphere, it is hard to imagine anyrequest to use force by any party getting approved. The most important authority the U.N. was afforded upon its establishment has effectively been rendered moot, at least for some considerable period of time. And the United States has played a leading role in getting us to this point.
Second, there is a certain irony in the Russian role in all this. Few Americans appreciate how much the U.S. use of force without Security Council mandates (notably in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003) bothered the Russian political elite. The Russian view is that, while the United States played a leading role in writing the rules of the post-World War II international order, it has played theleading role in violating and undermining them since the Cold War ended. When Russians in the 1990s imagined a post-Cold War world order, they assumed that a core element would be a Security Council that, as prescribed by its Charter, actually constrained the use of military force – which is to say, they imagined that their veto power would matter.
Relatedly, the Russian position on Syria is that they are acting legally but the United States and it allies are not. They point out that their military operations are at the request of the legally recognized government in Damascus, whereas the United States and allied operations are not. And they point to the hypocrisy of Western governments justifying an illegal use of force in the name of international law (enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention).
The fact is, however, that Russia, too, has contributed mightily to undermining international law in general and legal constraints on the use of force in particular, most obviously in Crimea. This despite the fact that, as a relatively weak “great power” that is getting weaker as its economy stagnates, it has every reason to support international law and legal constraints on the use of force. It may not like the current order, but a lawless international system is not in Russia’s long-term interests, particularly given its huge size, multiple neighbors, and declining geopolitical weight . Unwisely, Russia has allowed its (understandable) anger over U.S. transgressions to drive policy, with the result that it has overplayed its hand.
Again, the irony is that Russia’s most important contribution to rendering the UNSC toothless may have been to help bring Donald Trump to power.
More on why it’s not over
One point I didn’t mention in my previous post is that, while the United States and its allies already have a great preponderance of force in the Mediterranean, their hard power advantage is about to get greater. The U.S. carrier strike force, CVN-75, centered around the Nimitz-class carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, is on its way to the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal, bringing all its varied firepower with it. That will take it into the Mediterranean by the end of this week. There is a chance it will linger there for some time, presumably for demonstration purposes. But if (more likely) it doesn’t, its strike capabilities will still be well within range of Syria, as the Tomahawks delivered from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf on Friday made clear.
Another purely military point of note: Russia reportedly has two very quiet Kilo-class hunter submarines in the Mediterranean. The Times of London reported over the weekend that a British attack submarine had been stalked by one or both of these submarines in the lead up to Friday’s strike. Two Russian frigates and an anti-submarine aircraft were also apparently involved in the search for the British submarine.
One takeaway from this is that a lot of Russian assets were involved in a cat and mouse game with one British attack submarine that is much inferior to its American counterparts in terms of firepower – a British Astute-class submarine carries no more than 20 Tomahawks, whereas a U.S. Ohio-class sub can carry up to 154. Imagine the difficulty the Russian navy would have in the Mediterranean in a hot conflict given how much of its capability was devoted to hunting one British submarine.
However, the incident is also a reminder of what can go wrong during a moment of high military tension between the U.S. and Russia. The article states: “The Astute-class submarine is believed to have spent several days trying to evade detection in a tense and dangerous contest.” Imagine if the “dangerous contest” had produced an accidental collision that led to one or more submarines sinking.