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Expert View: The Potential Fallout From the U.S. Strike in Syria

Syria Deeply speaks with experts in our community to understand the potential fallout for Syria, the Middle East and the world from the first U.S. strike against Assad’s military.

Written by Kim Bode, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Syrian protesters hold posters during a demonstration in support of the Syrian president outside the U.N. office in Damascus on April 8, 2017. AFP/Louai Beshara

Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base on Thursday night, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. As part of this series, we asked some of our experts what could be the potential fallout from this action for Syria, the Middle East and the world?

Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: Syria is very complicated. It could be any number of things. I am of the mind that – especially if it remains a limited use of force targeted at military targets for a specific purpose, in this case the ones that launched the chemical attack on Tuesday – it is something the U.S. should have done a long time ago and could potentially deter Bashar al-Assad and his allies from targeting civilians in such a wanton manner. They clearly don’t respond to diplomatic negotiations or condemnation. It’s been six years. We know that doesn’t work.

So I’m of the school of thought that this was the right thing to do and late, much later than it should have been. I see a lot of support for the strike in the region, certainly in Syria, among people, at least, that I’m in communication with. My organization works in besieged areas and there’s an outpouring of support.

But of course there could be negative fallout depending on how the Syrian government reacts. I think it isn’t the most predictable or rational of regimes and kind of like a cornered, wild animal. I think if it really thinks it’s in danger of losing power, it could lash out in a way that is dangerous and unpredictable, but I think there’s a really good likelihood that instead, with pushes from Russia, it will maybe actually come to the negotiating table in good faith, which it has never, ever done. It’s just used negotiations as essentially stalling tactics for the past four years now that there have been negotiations. So I think it has a strong potential to go in that way.

Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: If previous examples are any indication, the fallout will be minimal. Russia will certainly attempt to act tough, but both Moscow and Washington know they need each other in Syria. However, the strikes on Thursday inescapably set a new tone in Syria, which might disrupt whatever norms the two countries established over the past two years in unpredictable ways. In other words, while the strikes were clearly meant as just that, it is impossible to predict how Russia and Iran will behave in response and how far the U.S. is willing to preserve the deterrence value it generated through the attack. Overall, Russia and Iran know that the U.S. did not punch above its weight and it can go further, so the potential fallout will likely be contained by all sides.

Rami G. Khouri, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut: You know it’s very hard to tell long-term. What it does in the short term is, it adds a major new component, which is an active, direct American military attack component. The Americans have been there on the ground helping some of the rebel groups to liberate Raqqa and Mosul, but this is different. And this probably simply is going to freeze the situation as it was before the chemical attack. In other words, Assad and his supporters can probably keep doing what they were doing before, which was sieges, an occasional barrel bomb, an occasional artillery attack but not chemical weapons; slow-motion killing instead of dramatic, barbaric chemical weapons killing. And the U.S. and the world seemed to be ready to go along with that. They might not like it, but they aren’t going to get involved directly. So that’s my guess in the short term. All it does is take us back to where we were a week ago.

The other interesting calculation is about U.S.-Russian cooperation or collaboration or whatever you want to call it. The Russians said they are going to suspend their agreement to deconflict any possible engagements between their two air forces there. So they’ll suspend it for a week and then they’ll probably bring it back. The Russians are making really symbolic moves, moving a ship into the East Mediterranean that can fire cruise missiles as well. But the U.S. and Russia are not going to get into a war over Syria. They’re not going to get into war anywhere. It would be stupid to do that. And thus I expect this is going to be a much less dramatic move in its consequences in Syria than it is in the political atmosphere of the U.S. I think this was primarily about American presidential hormones. It’s about being the tough guy and showing the world the U.S. isn’t going to put up with this and lead the effort to do something about chemical weapons. And that’s going to be achieved. If Assad fired these, which most people seem to think is the case, he’s probably not going to do it again in the short term because it’s going to be costly for him.

This is [more] about American political self-image than it is about anything else as far as I can tell. The United States doesn’t want to get involved militarily in Syria, even though it is involved militarily. I think more and more Americans are understanding that they have been involved for 35 years almost, since the beginning of [the Soviet-Afghan war]. The U.S. has been involved directly or indirectly in warfare all across the Middle East for 35 years and all that’s happened in the last 35 years is the whole Middle East has become less stable, more violent, the jihadi groups are the fastest-growing sector of the political spectrum and they are all over the Middle East. And American militarism is one important element in this process. It’s not the only reason, but it exacerbates the functions that already exist in many societies in the Middle East and when you add autocrats and American militarism together, they are a very destructive combination of sources that have worked together, inadvertently, to create chaos all over the Middle East.

Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: For Syria, the immediate implications practically are minimal, in terms of the impact from a capability standpoint on the Assad forces. By all indications the assets that were targeted were not exactly on the leading edge of Assad’s ability to wage the war. So just looking at what does this do operationally, the effect is not zero, but I suspect there is more than enough excess capacity not only within the Syrian air force but also in terms of locations and runways that can support future strikes. I think the plethora of opposition groups will see this and get excited but they have to temper their expectations because it is much more complicated in terms of the fallout. It is nowhere near the kinds of escalation that they would interpret as toppling the balance in the war.

For the Assad regime, whatever the decision-making might have been in the past, it now has to be judged against the risks of the U.S. taking these kind of retaliatory measures. At the regional level, within the Middle East, you also have a mix of responses. You’re going to have countries who see this very favorably, especially in the Gulf and Turkey, but that needs to be tempered by the reality that there still isn’t any indication this is part of a plan to climb an escalatory ladder by the Trump administration. Far from it. The U.S. needs to show that it can.

There is a more traditional line of thinking that is in a world where the U.S. hasn’t acted and changed course at the 11th hour in 2013 there was one kind of ambiguity about U.S. intervention in civil wars, which is that the U.S. is going to deliberate until the window for action is no longer viable. The missile strike more than anything else recalibrates that debate and puts it in the context that this administration seems to be at least tangentially willing to show that it will stand by a doctrinal position on punitive measures for any country that chooses to use weapons that are banned or that impacts the balance of power in a given context.

These statements have been edited for length and clarity.

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