The Question of Escalation in Syria
The natural next step in considering the US-led airstrikes in Syria is to question what comes next for those involved. With so many international actors involved in the conflict, there can be a tendency to err on the side of panic when considering the possible outcomes of such an escalation, and, in fairness, there is a nonzero chance that these strikes escalate to a direct conflict between the US and either Russia or Iran. However unlikely this outcome may be, it’s only a further condemnation of the decision to launch the strikes in the first place.
But past decisions aside, let’s recap what the strikes did, and, more importantly, did not do.
- reduced Assad’s capabilities for future chemical weapons use, at least in the short-term. If the preliminary reports are to be believed, the strikes primarily targeted a research center near Damascus believed to be a production site for the weapons, and two storage sites outside of Homs.
These airstrikes did not:
- target Russian assets or forces. While there are reports that Moscow was not notified in advance of the attacks, unlike the April 2017 strikes, it appears that no Russian assets were directly targeted or affected.
- target pro-Assad, regime forces. This is a key point, as US actions in Syria have been careful to limit its attacks and forces to anti-ISIS campaigns and reducing Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. The US has opted for the use of proxy forces (mainly through the arming and training of Sunni militias, albeit hesitantly) in combatting Assad in the ongoing civil war.
- target Iranian forces. While there are unverified reports that a location where Iran is believed to be building a base was targeted, it does not appear that Iranian forces were in the crosshairs of these strikes.
This was purposeful. The US shows no interest in getting further involved in Syria, and by striking only at Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities it gives itself the appearance of action without increasing its chances of needing to do more in the near future (we saw this template for “action” last April).
For the part of Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia, they seem unlikely to escalate the situation so as to draw more US action. For Iran, Syria falls in line with their strategy of forward-defense. They will build military capabilities in the country, in the form of building bases, funding Shiite militias, and increasing military and economic ties to the regime, but are unlikely to shift to an offensive position. These capabilities are primarily designed with the intention of keeping future military conflicts out of Iranian territory and increasing their geopolitical influence in the region. The targeting of a base in mid-construction will be met with tough rhetoric at home but is unlikely to induce any real change of strategy on the ground. They will record that they erred too close to the line, and file it for future reference.
As the opposing power most nearly approaching the capabilities of the US, Russia’s response to the strikes will hold far more importance, but again, it is unlikely to escalate the situation. Russia’s actions in Syria can be explained through the lens of Putin’s campaign to restore some of Russia’s international clout. A strategy primarily designed with the US as its adversary, it primarily works in aggressive ways around the periphery, where it is unlikely to receive a strong or unified response from the US and its allies, as opposed to seeking direct, open conflict with the US. It holds plausible deniability as one of its core tenets (non-Russian, Russian forces in Ukraine, meddling in US elections by Russia-based trolls, poisoning a former Russian agent in the UK), and its main utility is as fodder for Putin to feed to Russians back home (eg, “See how I am reasserting Russia as a power and thumbing my nose at the US-led world order!”). Where Russia succeeds is in the fecklessness of the West to address these various indiscretions (both by Obama and Trump), not because of some master puppeteering by Putin. Given this, the strikes will also be met with strong rhetoric in Russia, but will likely not lead to any dramatic change of strategy on the ground.
Where these strikes become problematic is that it is within the realm of possibility that this situation does escalate. Suppose Iran retaliates by striking Israeli capabilities in the region (this is a rivalry that is rapidly heating up and will have disastrous consequences should it result in open conflict). How does the US and Trump, who has given Netanyahu a decidedly longer leash than Obama, manage its client state Israel? Or suppose that Russia decides to no longer tolerate any future strikes and shoots down an American fighter jet. Where then does the conflict go? And if it escalates, how capable do you think the leadership in Washington will be at managing what comes next? Trump has now surrounded himself with a pair of shiny new hawks, and both hold strong anti-Iran and anti-Russia views. If the situation escalates, do you trust Trump as commander-in-chief facing the prospects of a war that two of his closest advisors seemingly want so desperately?