Strike on Syria—who re­ally won

While Trump was clear about what the costs of an­other chem­i­cal at­tack would be, As­sad may have found this ‘cost’ ac­cept­able

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Abra­ham R. Wag­ner Abra­ham Wag­ner is a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Stud­ies on Ter­ror­ism and au­thor of sev­eral books on mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in the Mid­dle East.

Pres­i­dent Trump and his na­tional se­cu­rity team de­serve high praise for their re­cent ac­tion in at­tack­ing Syr­ian chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­i­ties. They did ev­ery­thing right. Not only was it well-jus­ti­fied and timely, the pres­i­dent and his team did not rush into an at­tack but waited sev­eral days to eval­u­ate the in­tel­li­gence from var­i­ous sources, de­velop at­tack op­tions that met the pres­i­dent’s spe­cific ob­jec­tive, and form a coali­tion with key al­lies Great Britain and France for the strike.

The lim­ited strike it­self went off with­out a hitch. Des­ig­nated chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­i­ties in Da­m­as­cus and out­side were pre­cisely struck with lit­tle col­lat­eral dam­age. Am­ple warn­ing was given to the Rus­sians through “de­con­flic­tion chan­nels” so that there would be no Rus­sian ca­su­al­ties and they would not be dragged into a larger con­flict. As a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion, it’s one that can go into fu­ture text­books.

Search­ing for any pos­si­ble ex­cuse, the “hate Trump no mat­ter what” crit­ics can only cling to a ba­nal ar­gu­ment that he didn’t ask Congress for a dec­la­ra­tion of war against Syria, or that the 2001 Autho­riza­tion for the Use of Mil­i­tary Force (AUMF) was no longer valid or didn’t ap­ply. For now, how­ever, Ar­ti­cle II of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion as well as the AUMF are still op­er­a­tive, and this ar­gu­ment just won’t fly.

What is use­ful to ask now is just why did Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad en­gage in yet an­other chem­i­cal at­tack, and how was Pres­i­dent Trump’s clear mes­sage re­ceived. Mr. As­sad him­self, fol­low­ing in his fa­ther’s foot­steps, has no real use for in­ter­na­tional law, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity or any sense of moral­ity. By most ac­counts he has al­ready slaugh­tered close to a mil­lion of his own peo­ple in over six years of a hor­rific civil war. He sim­ply doesn’t care what the U.S. says, and his Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ers don’t ap­pear in­clined to stop him.

Since the on­set of the Syr­ian civil war Mr. As­sad has been plagued with a rebel strong­hold in Eastern Gouda, close to Da­m­as­cus, that he has been un­able to clean out with con­ven­tional mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions; and this hasn’t been for want of try­ing. Clearly ig­nor­ing the mes­sage Mr. Trump sent him with the April 2017 mis­sile strike af­ter an ear­lier chem­i­cal at­tack, Mr. As­sad un­der­took an­other one.

But wait for a mo­ment and con­sider: What was Mr. Trump’s 2017 mes­sage to Mr. As­sad? If you en­gage in an­other chem­i­cal at­tack there will be con­se­quences and a cost. Mr. Trump was be­ing en­tirely hon­est, and with this re­cent at­tack there were con­se­quence and a cost. The crit­i­cal ques­tions re­main. Was this a cost Mr. As­sad was will­ing to bear? What did he ul­ti­mately get out of it?

For­get about in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion on the il­le­gal use of chem­i­cal weapons. Mr. As­sad just doesn’t care. Bot­tom line so far is that the mis­sile strike by the U.S., Great Britain and France cost him one build­ing in Da­m­as­cus, re­port­edly a chem­i­cal weapons R&D fa­cil­ity, as well as two stor­age de­pots with likely stock­piles of more chem­i­cal ord­nance.

What is lost for the mo­ment is what Mr. As­sad got out of all this. While al­most all of the me­dia at­ten­tion has been on the 40 or 50 civil­ian vic­tims of the chem­i­cal at­tack in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, very lit­tle has been fo­cused on the fact that sev­eral thou­sand rebels were “per­mit­ted” to leave on buses for ter­ri­tory in North­ern Syria. In short, Mr. As­sad got thou­sands of rebels that had been driv­ing him crazy for years out of the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs with vir­tu­ally no losses to his own forces. Was this worth the R&D build­ing and two stor­age de­pots? Ob­vi­ously yes. Most likely he sees this as a “win.”

For decades U.S. strate­gic pol­icy has been built on the con­cept of “de­ter­rence” whereby an ad­ver­sary is stopped from tak­ing some hos­tile ac­tion be­cause the cost of do­ing so is too high. This has served the na­tion well for many years, and cur­rent na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy is based on the con­cepts of “ex­tended de­ter­rence” and “tai­lored as­sur­ance.” Clearly the Trump team ap­plied this to the Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion.

While Mr. Trump and his team all made it per­fectly clear to Mr. As­sad what the costs would be of an­other chem­i­cal at­tack, it may not have been clear to the team that Mr. As­sad’s own cal­cu­la­tion was that this “cost” was not only ac­cept­able but in­deed, may have been a bar­gain. De­ter­rence only works where the costs are too high. It fails if the costs are seen as a good deal by the other side.

What hap­pens next is hard to say. Even the best an­a­lysts in­side and out­side the gov­ern­ment aren’t in agree­ment. With the rebels in Eastern Ghouta now gone, Mr. As­sad may just give up use of chem­i­cal weapons en­tirely. The U.S. and the al­lies may see this as a “win” and look to ex­tri­cate U.S. forces from Syria as quickly as pos­si­ble. Mr. As­sad will most cer­tainly see this as a “win” as well. The lengthy Syr­ian civil war ap­pears to be slowly mov­ing to­ward an end, al­though there is no se­ri­ous chance that Mr. As­sad will yield power, or that Syria it­self will look any­thing like its pre-war state. Rus­sia, Iran and the Hezbol­lah have all be­come ma­jor fac­tors in­side Syria — a fact which does not bode well for Is­rael or al­lied in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East.

Mr. As­sad may just give up use of chem­i­cal weapons en­tirely. The U.S. and the al­lies may see this as a “win” and look to ex­tri­cate U.S. forces from Syria as quickly as pos­si­ble. Mr. As­sad will most cer­tainly see this as a “win” as well.


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