This most mercurial of presidents might have issued one of his trademarked about-turns this morning but it now looks inevitable that the US and allies will strike Syria in the coming days. On Tuesday, Donald Trump foreshadowed (perhaps even forewarned) Russia that the missiles are coming (“nice and new and ‘smart!'”) and Theresa May is receiving all the right signals from senior politicians and mandarins over UK involvement in such an attack.
All of which raises the question: why?
There are four expediencies at play here; four different ends that might explain matters.
The first is what we’ve been told is happening. Syria used a chemical weapon to kill civilians and now they are to be punished. These strikes will no doubt be limited and, quite likely, the Americans will use the deconfliction hotline to give a warning, as they did last time, to avoid any Russian casualties. Russia will, of course, share this information with their allies, making the real-world significance of the strikes even more symbolic. The US, France, UK, and any other ally involved, will have thrown large amounts of money in the forms of experience precision ordinance ($1.5 million per Tomahawk) in order to make a point. That point will have been made, though, and the world will be able to move on.
The second reason is the matter of the Assad regime, which the Western allies want to see toppled. It’s an end that looks highly unlikely so long as Assad is supported by Russian and Iran. This point, then, is largely moot. The attacks will do nothing towards achieving that goal. America’s support for Syria’s opposition had already waned under Trump, who made the destruction of ISIS his single foreign policy aim through the strategy defined by his advice “bomb the shit out of them”. If Assad’s demise is their goal, these strikes only underline the strategic ineptitude of America.
The third reason for the strikes is the domestic audience. There are good political reasons for the action that go beyond making a point about “red lines”. Most people are appalled at the use of chemical weapons and the strikes are meant to satisfy the need “do something”. However, this is not all about Syria. The use of chemical agents on UK soil mean that Russia is becoming bolder in its foreign policy. Syria, in particular, is a point where Putin is enjoying some success in flexing Russian muscle. If there’s any place on the globe that a message can be sent about provoking the West, then that place is surely Syria. The danger, of course, is that this could escalate. That, however, looks highly unlikely. Russia is in no strategic, economic, or military position to want to see that happen. The same appetite for full-out war is lacking in the West.
The last reason is peculiar to Donald Trump. He might want to distract from his domestic problems (literal and figurative) but this does not look like a traditional “Wag the Dog” scenario. Rather, Trump needs to look tough against Putin in order to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation into any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. There was no other way to read Trump’s risible tweet from Tuesday when he claimed that “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.” It’s blatantly false. Things are bad thanks to renewed Russian aggression but Trump has been nothing but warm towards Putin. Even when they kicked 60 diplomats out over the Skripal there was no stipulation that stopped Russian from sending a different set of 60 diplomats back.
There is also one last way of reading this which is less of a goal than a matter of redressing a balance. The bombing will be America’s chance to restate its interest in the region. Trump naively, stupidly, and perhaps even spontaneously suggested last week that America would soon start to pull its forces from Syria. This came as a surprise to the Defence Department, as well as to diplomats. It also seemed to have given Assad reason to believe that America was no longer interested in Syria. The bombing will come at a price but the price is also that of Trump’s blunder. It shows what everybody already knew and feared: words out of the American president’s mouth do matter. There are consequences and sometimes they are deadly.