Deterrence and the red-line: What Trump’s missile strike means for Syria and the world

April 7th 2017, the United State’s launches its long delayed opening salvo against President Bashar al Assad in the six year old Syrian civil war. The event marks US President Donald Trump’s deepest foray into the world of foreign policy and a distinct departure from his administration’s position on the government of Syria, articulated days earlier by Press Secretary Sean Spicer: that the US must accept the “political reality” of Assad in power and maintain their focus “on defeating ISIS.”

The catalyst of this dramatic reversal? Images of dead children, foaming at the mouth.

The images and video footage surface first on the social media accounts of Syrian civilians and activists. Soon after they appear on Syrian and international news media. Hospitals in the Idlib area begin documenting victims displaying symptoms consistent with sarin gas exposure, and open source reporting and US satellite imagery reveal Syrian aircraft in the vicinity at the time. From these disparate pieces of information, a coherent story: on the morning of April 4th, two Syrian Airforce Sukhoi SU-22 jets took off from Shayrat air base towards the town of Khan Sheikhounan. Upon reaching the town the jets released a payload of four missiles filled with sarin gas, the chemical concentrated enough to kill people in open air; some first responders dying on arrival to the scene. 74 lives were ended, including those of 30 children.

The attack is denounced around the world, although predictably, measures in the UN stall — vetoed by Russia — who initially dismiss reports of the attack as a “prank of a provocative nature”, and later begin floating alternative stories deflecting blame from Assad. For his part, Assad continues to deny the use of chemical weapons, going as far as to contradict fact by claiming “we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history” — it is well documented that Assad routinely weaponises chemicals like chlorine to attack Syrian civilians, with relative impunity.

This chemical attack however, the most deadly since 2013, provokes a strong emotional response, and in the vacuum of a defined Middle Eastern policy, Donald acts.

August 21st, 2013. President Obama receives news of a Syrian government attack leaving 1,400 Syrians dead, including over 450 children. Thousands of survivors show symptoms of sarin gas exposure. Complicated by having a year earlier laid down a “red line” against the movement or utilization of chemical weapons, Obama appears cornered into action. A “proportional” missile strike from the sea is proposed, the case is made to the American people, military vessels are positioned in the Mediterranean, and moments from action, Russia — Assad’s ally but not yet involved in the conflict — tables a diplomatic solution: the controlled destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, under Russian oversight.

Obama doesn’t act — and accepting the the Russian deal — supports and contributes to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles.

I’m very proud of this moment . . . I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy . . . I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.
— Barack Obama

Having avoided military intervention and direct confrontation, and calculating Assad’s position as untenable and likely to collapse on it’s own, Obama chooses to instead influence events through rhetoric, and the funding of a CIA program to quietly develop, arm and train a viable opposition.

The removal of chemical weapons proceeds rapidly, and soon images are televised of stockpiles being destroyed at sea, although concerns arise over Russian oversight, and how complete the dismantlement of Assad’s chemical weapon capabilities actually is. Robert Einhorn, the State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control reflects on the episode: “Surely, the Russians must have known about these C.W. [having not been destroyed]. [It] shows the limits of doing deals with Putin.

Despite concerns, sarin leaves the battlefield, and Assad’s tactics evolve. High casualty incidents become the domain of conventional weapons. Sarin is traded in favour of cheap — and not internationally outlawed — chlorine ‘barrel bomb’ attacks; literally the dropping of barrels from helicopters over population centres. An arrangement is found, Assad using less visible or offensive means, and Obama refraining from direct action — the American people looking elsewhere.

The narrative is shattered two years later with Russia’s surprising entry into the conflict; it’s first act, bombing to destruction the CIA funded opposition. The Great Bear’s intervention would come to save Assad, bolster Putin’s position in the region, and push the US to the very fringes of the conflict.

I am afraid we have lost the war, but that does not mean, if we get the right strategy, that we need to lose the peace.
— David Richards, the former chief of defence staff of the UK.

When the images hit Trump his first reaction was not presidential, his response was one driven by emotion and revealing of naivety. A grandfather of eight, his paternal streak on full display and fixated solely on the loss of children, as if unaware of a single atrocity in the history of warfare. “[T]hat attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas . . . [t]hat crosses many, many lines”. Reportedly swayed by his daughter Ivanka, a decision was made to act.

Outlining the goal to “prevent and deter the spread of deadly chemical weapons”, a plan was drafted - and 63 hours after the chemical attack - executed.

Destroyers USS Porter and the USS Ross launched 59 tomahawk missiles at Shayrat air base, where the jets that performed the attack had taken off from and were likely situated. Precautions were taken “to minimise risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield”, the Russians being warned an hour in advance; a level of communication consistent with that occurring under Obama. Contradictory Syrian government statements report both seven and nine casualties (the higher estimate categorising all victims as civilian, and including 4 children).

Trump’s attack was unilateral; not supported by the UN, and involving no participation from other nations. Despite the unilateral nature of the strike, leaders lined up to show their support — European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU “understands efforts to deter future attacks”, the UK and France both provided rhetorical support within the UN, and for it’s part NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg said Assad “bears full responsibility”.

“I really believe that we should . . . take out [Assad’s] air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.” — Hillary Clinton (April 6th, 2017)

All indications point to the missile strike being an isolated attack, Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State taking pains to reiterate that the strikes do not represent a shift in policy. While neither risking immediate escalation nor bringing Syria closer to peace, the strikes complicate the Great Power struggle over Syria. Russia, Syria and Iran have provided a very coordinated response: Syrian jets have been moved under the Russian anti-air umbrella, and (with what I very well consider the employment of a meme) a violent response has been threatened if their own “red lines” are crossed.

Attacking a sovereign is destructive and costly in terms of treasure and (innocent) blood. To act is fraught with risk. But I read this as a rare occasion in which Trump (maybe swayed by the input from his daughter) has demonstrated an acceptance of reality. Consider the alternatives — and as you do, keep in mind Trump’s previous positions and statements; specifically those on Putin and Russia.

If [Putin] says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him . . . I’ve already said he is very much of a leader. The man has very strong control over his country.
— Donald Trump

Putin’s Syria propaganda remains consistent with his tendency to deny that which is evidently true, a position that Trump has been all too comfortable in adopting in a variety of contexts. It is illuminating to watch Trump operate within this new role (one laying down opposition to, rather than reinforcement of, Russian messaging), and it’s fun to watch absolutist language like “There can be no doubt” employed in the name of truth, as if Trump sees his own assessment as having some validating power.

While there is the concrete meaning of Trump’s message (Assad, refrain from using chemical weapons), there is of course something more abstract and aggressive being communicated. Simply: I can pay you attention, and when I do, expect more than tweets. This message is something that actors across the world will need to consider. However, another theatre provides a demonstration of the potential limits of this particular brand of deterrence.

Many expected North Korea to be Trump’s first foreign policy crisis, and while yet to hit boiling point, escalation has occurred, simultaneous to the events in Syria. On the 9th of April — just days after his missile strike on Syria — Trump announced the rerouting of Carrier strike group one, to Korean waters in response to North Korean rhetoric and a predicted missile test. Characterised by Trump as an “armada”, the carrier strike group comprises the aircraft-carrier Carl Vinson as well as a missile cruiser, submarines, and two Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers — the same class of ship responsible for the strike against Syria.

Consider the North Korean perspective: On Syria, Trump says “something should happen” — that something, the launching of cruise missiles. Days later, he says of you: you’re “looking for trouble” — while positioning the very class of ship used to attack Syria (not to mention an aircraft carrier, hundreds of times more destructive), off your coast. It’s clear what form that trouble would come in.

But of course, as we’ve already seen throughout this presidency, popular narratives pay no heed to reality. The “armada” was not on it’s way to North Korea — in fact 3,500 miles away, heading in the opposite direction — and Kim Jong Un would proceed with the missile test; the attempt at deterrence either failing entirely, or (the more hilarious reading) Kim Jong Un having a more grounded understanding of reality (namely that the ships were not real and posed no threat) than that of his US counterpart.

For now we must wait and see. The efficacy of deterrence under Trump may be incomplete, but world leaders must take heed to some of his rhetoric. As I complete this article, Trump’s “armada” has finally arrived on the Korean peninsular: we may not need to wait long before Trump’s rhetoric next turns kinetic.