To say the least, the Tomahawk strike on Syria has caused a great amount of chatter throughout the world, but most of it is misplaced and some is outright outlandish. I thought I’d weigh in, not in a partisan way, with an agenda, but simply to clear the air a bit. So here, in no order of precedence, are the primary questions being asked:
Who did the chemical strike in Syria?
The minute I heard that chemical weapons had been used in Idlib, the first thing I thought was, “That makes no sense whatsoever. It has to be the rebels.” Assad, for all his faults as a dictator and a murderous thug, is nothing if not a survivor. Two days before the attack, President Trump acknowledged this. Both his secretary of state and his ambassador to the UN said that his removal was no longer a goal of US policy. For Assad, this is a win-win. Through Russian and Iranian help, he is slowly but surely winning the civil war in Syria, and without outside interference, the endstate is preordained. What, on the surface, would cause outside interference? A horrific act, such as the use of chemical weapons.
So why on earth would Assad do such a thing? It doesn’t make sense. For one, chemical weapons are designed for a specific reason. Yes, they kill, but they do more than that. They deny terrain, block approaches, generally make areas uninhabitable, or instill terror that forces the other side to capitulate. Unlike a bomb that just explodes, they present a problem that has to be resolved long after the strike. It’s why they were invented. In this case, the weapon used did none of that. It wasn’t even in an area with a concentration of rebels. A conventional bomb could just as easily have been used. But it wasn’t. So why on God’s green earth would Assad choose to use it, knowing the outcry that would be engendered, and knowing President Trump’s chosen policy position?
One possibility is he didn’t do the strike, but someone inside his orbit did. Someone who was now antithetical to his desires, and knew the strike would cause massive repercussions that might cause his downfall. I thought about this for a bit, but found it far fetched. Assad officially turned over all of his WMD after the 2013 Obama fake “red line”, which means any he kept behind would have been under serious lock and key. A dissident regime member would need a significant number of like-minded men to load, arm, and use a WMD from an aircraft. The weapons would be kept separate from the usual ordinance, with significant restrictions on their withdrawal, and even more on having them loaded on an aircraft. So, you’d have to have an enormous conspiracy of high level members of the regime who a) knew where the weapons were secretly stored, b) had the ability to get them out to use secretly, and c) hide such a thing from an entire strike package of pilots and planners. It’s much more than a single aircraft, and it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Another possibility is it was a rebel strike (or a strike on a rebel chemical facility, which is what Russia is claiming). Initially, this held water with me. It’s the only thing that makes sense, given the state of play and the fact that the weapons’ use held no extra value to the regime. A conventional bomb would work just as well, and the downsides to chemical far outweigh any upside. Two things overcame my doubt: One, every intelligence service on the earth (outside of Russia and Wikileaks) states it was the regime. Admittedly, I’ve heard this over an over for the last few days, but still thought, “That doesn’t make sense. Am I falling for a narrative to uphold a strike?” In fact, the alt-right conspiracy theorists are saying just this thing – that it was a “false flag” attack perpetrated by the “deep state” (so American “cuckservatives” did the attack? I can’t keep up…) to engender a response. For them, the term “false flag” is a catch all that’s been used for everything from the Murrow Federal building to Sandy Hook, with 9/11 in between, so I had a little cognitive dissonance when I found myself agreeing with them. But as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. So what’s the proof that it was the regime?
This strike held something different: It was Sarin nerve gas, and that is not easy to manufacture, and even harder to stabilize and weaponize. The only other time Sarin was used was also by the regime, in 2013. Since then there have been several more chemical attacks in both Syria and Iraq, but they were of a lesser variety, using chlorine or mustard gas, both of which are far easier to manufacture than Sarin. Sarin is a killer of the first order, and is something that requires a state capability to produce and weaponize. You can’t make it in a bathroom, unlike mustard gas.
The fact that Sarin was used implicitly implicates the regime. But maybe it wasn’t Sarin? Maybe anti-Assad forces are just calling it that because they know the repercussions. I’d believe that but for two reasons: 1) As I said above, there have been multiple chemical attacks in this war since the 2013 attack, and none of them have been called Sarin. They’ve all been called chlorine or mustard, so it doesn’t make sense that everyone in Syria would suddenly start calling THIS attack Sarin. 2) Multiple autopsies, both from inside Syria and outside, have stated that the gas used was Sarin. This leads to the conclusion that it was, in fact, Sarin, which leads to the ultimate conclusion that it was the regime. No two-bit rebel group – not even ISIS – would have the capability to manufacture the weapon in question. Which means it was from the regime.
At the end of the day, as idiotic as it appears, it has to be the regime. It’s Occum’s razor here. So why do it? My thoughts: As I said in a blog from 2013, after watching what happened to Qaddafi when he turned over his WMD, Assad would be stupid to do the same, and I didn’t think he would back then. From that blog:
If anything, Assad has looked at the past and realized one of the few things keeping him in power are precisely his chemical weapons. One of the primary – and smart – reasons we haven’t conducted “regime change” with him like we did with Qaddafi is because we’re afraid of those weapons ending up with a bunch of fanatical jihadists. If he relinquishes his weapons, he loses that edge, and as I said before, his survival is the only thing he holds dear. In fact, I’m sure he’s looking at recent past history. Under President Bush, we convinced Qaddafi to give up all of his WMD capability, verified by international inspectors. Fast forward ten years, and President Obama is launching airstrikes to remove him, regardless of the jihadist rebels and regional chaos that would follow his fall. Assad knows full well that if Qaddafi had kept his WMD, there would never have been any NATO airstrikes because the west would have feared the consequences. With the WMD out of play, the west could pretend to be humanitarian by dismantling Qaddafi’s regime, and then allow the country to fall into chaos without worrying about the aftermath. After all, it’s way, way over there and not something that can affect us. Throw WMD in the mix though, and we’d spend a little more time debating the outcome before slinging missiles. No, if Assad’s learned anything, it’s keeping his weapons (and using them), only garners a potential pinprick, but giving them up guarantees his eventual fall.
Turns out, I was right, but having the weapons hidden does him no good. He needs to let folks know he has them, as that is the one thing that will give us pause on his overthrow. He needed a small strike to show that he did, in fact, have such weapons even after he said he’d given them up, and with the early assurances of the new administration saying he was not a priority, he decided to let the secret slip. He was putting the world on notice that he does have WMD, and if we overthrow him they will fall into the hands of the chaos left behind. The only counter-balance to Russian and Iranian attempts to prop up the Assad regime was/is the United States, and Assad had a moment in time when the administration stated that he was no longer a target. Given that pause, he wanted the world to know he HADN’T given up his WMD, and his downfall would cause those to be unleashed in terrorist hands. For him, it was a bulwark to protect his regime, and he read the backlash for what it would be – a limited strike – but also knew the back-room chatter in places that matter for his survival would completely change. Now, removing him would involve significant repercussions beyond just quibbling over who would be in charge after his fall. It would involve containing a clear and present danger to us, and in this gambit, Assad more than likely succeeded. Violent overthrow of his regime is now something that will give us pause, so as loony as it seems on the surface, there is some strategic logic in Assad’s strike.
Or, maybe he’s just batshit crazy. Either way, the above will play out.
What did our retaliatory strike gain?
On the surface, the strike did little to the Assad regime, so little, in fact, that aircraft were taking off from the same airfield we hit less than 24 hours later, but this is shortsighted. The strike did two things – and both of them are game changers. One, it showed that the US is willing and able to use military force for a transgression involving chemical weapons. I said this in 2013, namely that you can’t create a redline and not enforce it. Chemical weapons are unlike others. Some say that it’s ridiculous to go haywire over chemical and then sit back while conventional munitions slaughter – and there is some credence to that – but allowing chemical munitions to be used without repercussions is allowing an expansion of sanctioned violence that is antithetical to the world order. To the layman, it may make little sense that we care whether someone is killed with a bullet or suffocates to death by neurotoxin, but there is a difference, just as there is between dying in battle and getting burned alive on video by ISIS. The fact remains that there is a world order, and that order is predicated on precedence. Allowing these attacks to continue sets precedence for any other two-bit dictator out there. This strike put a much-needed marker down.
Two, on a bigger geopolitical scale, it showed that the United States is willing to use force, period. That, on the surface, should be a given, but with Obama’s missed redline in 2013, it’s most certainly not. Telling someone in a bar that if they bump you one more time, you’ll hit them, is a hell of a lot different than actually getting bumped and making a choice. At that point, you have two responses: Hit them, or not. When you don’t, you tell everyone else in the bar that your bluff was just that – a bluff. Whack them in the head and everyone else sees the blow – and that everyone else is North Korea, Iran, Russia, and every other state that wants to bump us. Trump just put them all on notice that the bump WILL engender a response, and the response of the US arsenal is a pretty heavy thing to go against. Make no mistake, the strike was limited, but the calculations now going on in every seat of government – both friendly and enemy – is wildly different from three days ago. All of Trump’s isolationist rhetoric on the campaign trail just went flying out the window, and the world took notice.
What does this mean for the outcome of the civil war in Syria?
Very little. I hear the pundits on TV breathlessly claiming that the strike has altered the calculus of Russia/Iran/Assad, but that’s not the case. The goal, pure and simple, was to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, and in that, it will succeed. Assad would be a lunatic to use them again – but if I’m correct, he got what he wanted out of the strike. The world now knows that he DIDN’T give up his WMD, and if he falls, so do the chemical weapons stockpiles. The strike will in no way bring him to any negotiation table – especially if he still has the support of Iran and Russia – and will not lead to more involvement by the United States. It’s not, as some have stated, mission creep whereby we’re now obligated to put boots on the ground to get rid of him. Three days later, Trump’s primary policy remains – defeat ISIS – and I don’t see that changing with the dynamics in play involving two other state systems. At most, we did what we set out to do – namely, we won’t tolerate the use of chemical munitions – but the slaughter will continue with little substantive changes to our strategy. This strike was a one-off, unless Assad does something heinous – and he’s not that stupid.
Was the strike legal?
Yes, it was. Quit your damn bitching, Tim Kaine. Where were you when we went into Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, or Libya? Oh wait, those were under democratic administrations. That must be why they were legal.
What could happen that we didn’t anticipate? What’s the second or third order effect?
There is a wild card, and that’s the rebel’s use of chemical munitions. Having seen the reaction from Assad’s attack, it would definitely behoove them to use whatever chemical munitions they have in a true false flag attack. It won’t be Sarin, but on the world stage, that may not matter. Now that we’ve sent the signal that further use of chemicals will engender a broader response, the world may see a separate attack of chlorine or mustard, and expect a United States response. Trump – who, by his own admission, relies on gut instinct – may feel forced to initiate a response before the evidence is in – especially if the attack was against coalition troops instead of civilians. American SOF breathing foam out of their mouths as they die will be hard to ignore, and the easiest target for a rapid response – in fact the only target – will be the regime. Even if there are civilian casualties, both the Russians and the Chinese demanded an impartial investigation for this attack, and it’ll be hard to say the next time, “We’re going to wait for proof on this one” when the last time you just pulled the trigger. Trump will risk looking weak, which is something he cannot stand. That, in my mind, is the biggest risk for mission creep – especially if the only proof you have of rebel use is your own intelligence agencies. It’s going to be hard bringing that evidence to the world stage when just a few months ago you were disparaging them by saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had WMD.”
Finally, a caveat: Whenever one tries using logic to explain war, one finds that war has a logic all its own. As with all the TV pundits, take what I’ve said with a grain of salt.
UPDATE – 9 APR – Yes, not less than thirty minutes after posting.
I made fun of the alt-right with their homogenous adherence to “false flag” attacks, because they’re really loony, but this – from the left -takes the cake. What if Putin smuggled in Sarin nerve gas to kill civilians precisely so that Trump could attack, and thereby alleviate suspicion about a Putin/Trump nexus? YES! You’ve solved it. It only cost every shred of credibility you could possibly ever own, both in this world and the next. This is some absolutely batshit stuff, and I’m worried about what I’ll see next. Independence Day was only a movie, wasn’t it?