*Editor’s note: This article was largely written before reports that Russia had foreknowledge of the Syrian chemical attack.
After April 30th, Bashar al-Assad appeared to be safe in his position as President of Syria. Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that the United States was not focusing on his removal, and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated that his future would be made by the people of Syria. Those statements made few waves, seeing as it was more or less in line with President Trump’s campaign stance of non-intervention in the Middle East, and it seemed that the Syrian Civil War would continue on without deviation, but Assad had been emboldened. Last Tuesday, Assad called for an chemical air strike on a rebel held town.
The sarin gas attack struck indiscriminately, killing men, women, children, and babies. At this point, their have been 75 deaths with many others affected with life-altering injuries. The world responded in expected terms of denouncement, but with the statements that had come out less than a week before, the Trump Administration was not anticipated to act beyond that. However, the tenor of the White House shifted quickly, and during a joint press conference with the King of Jordan, President Trump made it clear that his position on the future of Assad had been altered significantly. Then, last Thursday night, the true response arrived.
From the decks of the Navy destroyers, USS Porter and USS Ross, launched 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles. One failed and fell into the Mediterranean, but the 59 others flew towards the target. They flocked around the air base that sheltered the chemicals used in the attack and waited until the entire barrage had arrived. Finally, within the span of two or three minutes, all 59 missiles found their targets and the mission of destroying the chemicals, hangars, fuel depots, and planes was completed with pinpoint precision. There were only six lives lost in the strike and the Russian presence at the base as well as the airstrip itself were not harmed at all. It was a tactical strike with a fine focus and political impetus.
International praise for the action came swiftly and there was even bipartisan support from Washington. By all measurements, this is the most popular action that the young Trump administration has taken, but it is likely just the beginning. Some senators pushed back on the actions, saying that only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war, which is true, but misses the point of the strike. This was a small strike that took few lives and was in reaction to a violation of international law and U.N. resolutions, and Trump remains reluctant to fully intervene in Middle Eastern affairs. It kept the United States out of open and, since there was no congressional approval, unconstitutional war, but reestablishes its willingness to act on behalf of the global community. Beyond that, the situation in Syria remains a political and military quagmire that U.S. does not want to deal with immediately.
Currently, the U.S. is allied with the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, the Kurds, and various regional militias in a fight to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. is strategically positioned throughout the region not to fight, but to keep the various allies from fighting each other. The strongest U.S. ally in the region are the Kurds, an ethnic group that inhabits large swaths of the Middle East, and they are resented by most other groups and, therefore, most vulnerable. Their end game would be the founding of Kurdistan, a country of their own, and they are well on their way to getting it. They have established a independent regional government and are gaining local support from various cities, with Kirkuk, a town of about 1 million in northern Iraq, recently voting to join, but Turkey and the other countries that would be effected, strongly denounce the idea, partially because there is a large amount of oil within the proposed boundaries. To earn this concession, the Kurds are pouring their blood and sweat into the fight against ISIS and have made good progress across the region. How they play into the eventual resolution of conflict in the region is something that will be long discussed and hard fought. Adding to that issue, there is also the obvious problem with the Syrian Civil War.
While the U.S. coalition is fighting ISIS in Syria, the Syrian people are in open rebellion against the Syrian government and Assad. Currently, Russia and Iran are propping up Assad and his government. The two countries do this to gain access to the Mediterranean via Syrian ports and Russia also uses the country as a regional airbase. This latter point is the main reason the strike on Thursday was so restrained. Seeing as we are allied with Russia to fight ISIS, we need them to use their air force against the terrorist organization and their air force uses Syrian bases to launch their anti-ISIS strikes. Therefore, to avoid war with Russia and keep them engaged with the fight against ISIS, the missiles did not crater the runway and did not destroy or kill anything Russian. However, the struggle remains that, while we need the bases for the Russian air force, the Syrian government uses the same bases to launch attacks against their citizens and the Russians assist Assad with his assaults. The evidence for this is well known.
Aleppo was the largest city in Syria before the Syrian Civil War, which had some of its earliest clashes in the city, and before Assad, with Russian assistance, began to bombard the city to retake it from the rebels. The airstrikes were again indiscriminate and there were even reports that chemicals were used, but that was never fully confirmed. Thousands of civilians were killed and the number will likely never be fully known because the groups of targeted fighters were from various factions of resistance as well as some being part of the ISIS insurgency. Beyond that, the Assad government maintains that they only killed rebels and ISIS members. There was little done to counteract these actions, and the city was eventually reclaimed by Assad and Russia.
In Syria now, the U.S. could use their own air force and incapacitate the Syrian airbases and air force, but that would upset the already tenuous situation and could lead to open war with Russia and Iran. Those two countries have continued to support Assad after the US strike last week, although Russia could be waning on that, and, today, made separate statements that they would “use force” if the US crossed any of their “red lines.” They also maintain their initial reaction that the chemical attack of last Tuesday was not by Assad, but a false flag operation by the rebels to make it seem as though Assad had committed the act. However, there is now strong reporting that Russia had foreknowledge of the chemical attacks of last Tuesday. If true, this could damage negotiations going forward and possibly give the United States a foot up on Russia in the international view. Regardless of this new report’s veracity, any further military incursion by the US would take substantial prodding and is highly unlikely.
The main point of the U.S.’s presence in Syria, as stated, is to defeat ISIS and in order to do that, they must maintain the delicate balance that was previously described. The use of chemical weapons was an atrocity and deserved retribution, but the presence of those weapons made the use of them on the coalition a possibility, which would obviously destabilize it. It is possible that ISIS could locate, abscond with, and use those weapons against those that oppose them, both locally or internationally, as ISIS has embedded itself far beyond its geographic caliphate. The removal of those weapons was essential to the preservation of the regional equilibrium and international safety.
Once ISIS is defeated, the resulting situation will continue to be delicate. Then, the only national security issue for the United States would be the Syrian Civil War. Assad has shown that he will not stop until every person he sees as a rebel is killed or subdued. This means that the flow of refugees will not stop and the war will likely continue as unaligned peoples rise up against the continued oppression by Assad and the groups currently occupied by the fight against ISIS return home. The war, which has already seen almost half a million killed, will continue to reap more lives. The Trump administration has long held that safe zones should be established, with the help of Middle Eastern states, inside of Syria to ameliorate the refugee exodus and recent talks with the leaders of those countries, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, seem to have been productive in regards to those countries willingness to facilitate their building and maintaining, but that does not end the conflict. Therefore, in all likelihood, Assad will be required to leave his position and the White House aims to do that through diplomatic channels and remains highly reluctant to put boots on the ground to accomplish that end. Trump hopes to be the mediator, the deal-maker if you will, even if the most recent messaging seems to be somewhat contradictory, with Haley calling for the outright removal of Assad and Tillerson saying it is up to the Syrian people. Russia, as said, seems to be open to swapping puppets, removing Assad for another, but Iran will likely be less flexible to U.S. involvement. The situation becomes further complicated by the likelihood that the Kurds, who will have expended great amounts of human capital on this ISIS fight and who likely become engaged with the Syrian Civil War once ISIS is removed from their footholds, will look to formally establish their sovereign country.
There are no easy answers to the question of what Syria, or even the Middle East, will look like in five years and the Trump administration has no actual purely diplomatic wins as of yet, but changes are coming and the United States must be involved if the world is to become a more peaceful place.