Ten Theses on the Syria Strikes

The USS Porter conducts strike operations in response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. 7 April, 2017.

Early this morning, US-led forces struck targets in Syria associated with the government’s chemical weapons program. The objective was to degrade its offensive capability in light of the alleged attack carried out by the Syrian Arab Army in Douma last week, in which scores of civilians were killed. The French government claims to have evidence chlorine was used in the assault.

I. The strikes will not deter the Syrians from attacking civilians. NATO forces, led by the US, have been involved in strikes in Syria for most of the civil war. To date, between 400,00 and 500,000 persons are estimated to have perished in the conflict, and Western involvement has failed to drive down the death count.

II. The strikes are meant to send a signal to Russia Western displeasure at its foreign policy in general, not just in Syria. Due to Russia’s military presence in Syria, the country is the best place to do this without resorting to direct clashes in Europe, or in states on Europe’s periphery, such as Ukraine and Georgia.

III. The strikes are primarily being carried out in the background of allegations of covert Russian involvement in American and French elections, and most recently, in the United Kingdom, where it has been claimed Moscow played a role in both the 2016 Brexit referendum and, most recently the Skripal poisoning, in Salisbury. 

IV. The strikes are being carried out in the context of Russia’s growing military role in the Middle East, where it has sought to reassert itself for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Syria and Egypt were narrowly defeated by Israel, with the support of the United States. Israel’s victory ushered in a period of American hegemony in the region, which lasted through the second Gulf War.

V. The strikes do not just have relevance for Moscow. They also have consequences for Ankara, as they heighten friction between the NATO alliance, of which Turkey is a member, and Russia and Iran, which the Erdogan government has grown increasingly close to over the Syrian crisis, raising doubts about its political and military commitments to NATO and the European Union.

VI. The strikes are of equal consequence for Israel, as the Russian presence in Syria has created the first credible counterbalance to its military power in the region since the 1973 war. Though Moscow has largely tolerated Israeli strikes against Syria, Russia’s military presence has placed a shadow over Israeli military activity in the north, and the IDF cannot conduct itself with the same freedom it did prior to Russia forces arrival in Syria in 2015.

VII. The strikes will not lead to a resolution of the Syrian civil war. Russia will not withdraw its troops, leading to a dissolution of the Assad regime, and there are no competing political forces that can assume power. Syria remains ungovernable as a historic whole, and is at best only governable on a regional basis, by rebel factions, the strongest being led by the Kurdish PYD, in Rojava.

VIII. The strikes will likely lead to an escalation in hostilities between Russia and the NATO alliance, and may very well spill over into Europe, where Moscow could choose to take new initiatives in its conflicts with Ukraine and Georgia, for example, or heighten tensions in the Baltic region, which are already on the rise. Russia promised on Saturday to respond to the attacks, and such consequences, for Europe, cannot be ruled out.

IX. The strikes will not necessarily relieve the US president of the pressure being exerted on his administration, regarding the investigation of his administration’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections, though they may provide temporary diversion, such as their coinciding with the first reports of James Comey’s damaging book about his tenure as FBI director, which contains damaging disclosures about Trump.

X. The strikes will inevitably problematise the notion that the Western alliance and Russia are engaged in a ‘New Cold War’ as they cross the line of being a war fought between proxies into a direct conflict, due the overlapping of Russian and targeted Arab and Iranian forces in Syria, including those attacked by Israel last week.

Photograph courtesy of the US Department of Defence. All rights reserved.