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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.






2 Comments on "So, Why Are We Going To Bomb Syria Again?"

  1. I think Ron Paul’s assessment is probably closest to the truth, there are forces in Washington that are simply desperate to put one over on Russia and to topple Assad. That this offers a distraction to Trumps domestic problems and makes him look strong on Russia will be the reason for him coming on board. The problem for Trump is that anything that falls short of doing serious damage to the Syrian forces puts him no further forward, it will take a matter of days for people to call out the action as window dressing. If he does engage in a heavy and sustained action then the risk of escalation goes up massively.

    Regardless of Assad being a murderous scumbag, it is not in British interests to see him toppled, just as it was not in British interests to see Gaddafi toppled. Gaddafi’s demise has proved to be a disaster, not least for Libya itself, but also for Europe, as it has lead to hugely increased migrant flows and provided a training ground for islamic extremists. In Syria one look at the people that Assad is fighting ought to be enough to stay any hand against him. These are islamic extremists who think nothing of holing up in cities, surrounded by civilians upon whom they bring death. That they use those deaths for their own propaganda in an effort to attract foreign fighters and to induce “the West” to intervene is beyond doubt, that Western media outlets aid and abet them in this I find contemptible.

    I think the argument that the strikes are for a domestic audience holds little water, there have only been two polls in the UK, but neither found good levels of support for the action. Anecdotally there seems to be little support for action among Trumps support base and the online polls I’ve seen mirror those in the UK.

    Just a word on Russia, and I’m not aiming this at what you have written David but on the general precept. Whenever the issue of Russia rears it’s head I often see references to Russia being more aggressive. If you are taking their actions from a base level then that may well be true, but when you look at what Russia has done to “the West” over the past decade or so it amounts to diddly squat in real terms. Indeed I would categorise Russian actions as reactive rather than proactive.
    In 2004, six former Warsaw Pact countries join NATO bringing the alliance up to Russia’s border, Russia responds by accelerating it’s re-armament.
    The USA talks of deploying a missile shield in Poland, Russia responds by saying it will deploy nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad.
    The west supports a coup against Ukraine’s Russian friendly President, Russia marches into Crimea.
    The west supports an insurgency against Russian ally Assad, Russia sends forces to help Assad.

    If you turned those events on their head and applied them against the UK instead of Russia it would take on a very different look. You would see the Warsaw Pact facing us across the channel after it was extended to include most of Western Europe. Imagine a Russian sponsored coup to remove the UK friendly government in Ireland and Russia backing an armed insurgency in one of our long term allies, let’s say Australia arguments sake. How “unaggressive” would we deem that to be?, I think we would quite rightly feel extremely threatened, especially when we heard that a missile defence system that would nullify Trident was in the offing.

    It may well be essential to deal robustly with Russia and I do subscribe to the theory that Russia only respects strength. However, showing strength is different to going out of our way to threaten their national interests. No coup in Ukraine and Crimea would still be part of Ukraine. No foreign backing of Syrian rebels and Russian planes wouldn’t be bombing Syrian cities. I think it is what could be called a counterproductive policy. They tinker in our elections, we back opposition groups and host anti Putin oligarchs, that is about the acceptable level of antagonism we ought to be pursuing against each other as strategic rivals. It has got dangerously out of hand.

    Should Russia use it’s S-400 system against incoming missiles then the results will be interesting to note. A good performance would be the ultimate sales pitch.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rob. It was exactly the kind of debate I hoped to provoke by writing the above.

    I also agree and, indeed, sympathize with your viewpoint. I’ve never been one that sees Russia as some inherently villainous country who is committed to evil in some existential way. Putin is smart but driven by goals that don’t align with those of us in the West. I’m not so naive to view this as simply two sides pursuing rival goals. Putin is pathological and will also do anything to pursue those goals. I agree that Russian aggression has to be taken in the context of NATO expansion, which I always think was ridiculously naive. It was always going to provoke a response, which is why I think Putin felt empowered to retake Crimea. It’s also, I think, why it was largely greeted with a shrug of the shoulders in the West. It was seen as the logical move and nobody was going to war over it.

    Similarly, in Syria, there’s definitely a long-standing feeling that it’s more of Russia’s sphere of influence rather than America’s. Yes, there are some (if not many) who’d like to see Assad toppled but I really don’t see any of what’s currently happening as being to that end. I don’t think Trump is either smart enough or concerned enough. (I don’t believe he has a humanitarian bone in his body, otherwise, he wouldn’t have been so weak over the Puerto Rico disaster relief.)

    What is happening? Again, it’s why I floated the possibilities. Myself, I think it’s domestic and pretty vague. Somebody said to me earlier today that we shouldn’t try to analyze Trump and I agree. Since I wrote this, I notice that May has also stepped back from the idea of a strike, which I find a little surprising given the language of last night and this morning. It seems that Trump’s games are confusing the allies as much as they’re confusing everybody else.

    As for Russian aggression: it depends on what kind of timescale we’re talking. Of course, it’s not “new” but it’s certainly been more brazen in the past few years. It’s only a couple of years since we began to see the BTL comments produced by the Russian troll farms appearing on various newspapers. That’s really what I see as aggression. Flights edging airspaces have been going on decades. The real concerted attack on our democratic institutions is more recent. RT only started in 2005 and expanded to the US and UK in the past ten years. America is fighting this cyber war too, I know, as we’re also doing in the UK. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pick sides or indulge ourselves with a few moral judgments.

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