The Geopolitical Implications of the US-led Attack on the Syrian Government

The Geopolitical Implications of the US-led Attack on the Syrian Government

REPORT • Apr 2018

On 14 April 2018, the United States military, with French and British support, targeted a series of Syrian government military facilities. The attack was ostensibly in response to a chemical weapons attack on Douma, which the international community, barring Russia and other Syrian allies, have attributed to the government of Bashir al-Assad. The use of chemical weapons in Douma reportedly left at least 40 people dead and more than 500 injured. Douma is controlled by a series of different rebel groups. Civilians in the area have reported the use of chlorine gas and other chemical weapons since at least January 2018. Russia called the chemical attack in the area a false flag operation conducted by the White Helmets activists, while the Syrian government has argued that it was the work of UK intelligence services.

Key Points

  • On 14 April 2018, the United States, with the support of France and the United Kingdom, launched an aerial assault on Syrian government targets.
  • The attack was ostensibly in response to a chemical attack on civilians in Douma, east of Damascus, believed to have been conducted by the Syrian government.
  • This attack is likely to have significant implications for global and regional relations.
The Geopolitical Implications of the US-led Attack on the Syrian Government

Situational Summary

On 14 April 2018, the United States military, with French and British support, targeted a series of Syrian government military facilities. The attack was ostensibly in response to a chemical weapons attack on Douma, which the international community, barring Russia and other Syrian allies, have attributed to the government of Bashir al-Assad. The use of chemical weapons in Douma reportedly left at least 40 people dead and more than 500 injured. Douma is controlled by a series of different rebel groups. Civilians in the area have reported the use of chlorine gas and other chemical weapons since at least January 2018. Russia called the chemical attack in the area a false flag operation conducted by the White Helmets activists, while the Syrian government has argued that it was the work of UK intelligence services.

The US-led assault occurred at around 0400hrs local time on 14 April, mostly from naval assets located in the Mediterranean Sea according to reports. More than 100 missiles struck the targets of the Mezzeh Military Airbase, a chemical research facility in Barzeh, Damascus, a suspected chemical weapons bunker Near Homs, and Dumayr Airfield. All of these locations have been linked to the Douma attack in some way by coalition intelligence services. The US military reported that Syrian defence systems had not successfully engaged aircraft or missiles and that all aircraft had returned safely. According to the Pentagon, around 40 Syrian defence missiles were fired but none hit their targets, with reports suggesting that they were only fired after coalition missiles hit their targets; Russian defence systems in the country were not operated. For their part, the Syrian government claimed that 71 of 103 cruise missiles were shot down by their missile defence system, however this is highly likely to be a propaganda statement. No human casualties were initially reported by either side.

The Syrian Civil War

While the US-led attacks are significant, their immediate impact on the ongoing war in Syria is likely to be negligible. The physical damage to the Syrian Government has been minimal due to the prewarning Russia was given about the planned attacks; many valuable assets were moved to Russian facilities. Indeed, government forces have been able to regain territory west of Salamiyah since the strikes occurred on 14 April. The Pentagon has reported, however, that they were able to set the Syrian chemical weapons programme back years (though this is difficult to verify). The US and its allies have been keen to state that they were not seeking regime change in Syria, undoubtedly attempting to avoid comparisons with the Iraq war which began in 2003. Indeed, this attack by the US and its allies does not look likely to bring the conflict in Syria any closer to an end.

These factors suggest that the coalition remains keen, however, to alter Assad’s behaviour and ensure that chemical attacks of the kind in Douma do not occur again. In April 2017, the US launched a missile strike aimed at Shayrat Airbase in response to a nerve agent attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people. While this strike seemingly failed to alter Assad’s behaviour, the most recent attacks stand a better chance. They delivered twice the missile payload than in 2017, struck more targets, and the US did not act alone but with France and the United Kingdom. However, some commentators have suggested that the assault also sends an unintended message to Assad, that it is ok to slaughter and kill his own people, provided he uses conventional weapons only.

The US coalition in Syria has effectively lost the Syrian Civil War, Russia and Assad have won. The missile attack on 14 April 2018, will serve as a reminder to Damascus and Moscow of the threat that the US and the West could pose to the government in Syria. It also reasserts the moral norm that chemical warfare is unacceptable to the international community and not a worthwhile activity for parties to engage in.

United States

For the United States, and the Trump foreign policy, there is little understating the significance of the 14 April airstrikes. Trump appears to have reverted to a more conventional US foreign policy position. During the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump struck an isolationist tone and questioned how relative NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was and its value. Even though British and French involvement was minimal compared to the United States, the attack on Syria does suggest that Trump has moved back to its traditional post-World War Two alliance system. This will likely ease the minds European leaders who have had a difficult relationship with the US since President Trump took office in January 2017.

Despite this positive step towards the return of multilateralism in US foreign policy, commentators have suggested that an ugly truth cannot be hidden; the US does not have a Syria strategy. Russia’s position is quite clear. At virtually all costs, it is seeking to regain a footprint in the Middle East, lost when the Soviet Union fell. The US policy in Syria fluctuated in just the days before the aerial strike. On 29 March, despite military advisors stating the need for US troops to remain in the country for the foreseeable future, Trump claimed that the US would “be coming out of Syria like very soon.” This only goes to highlight the dilemma the United States has faced since the Syrian Civil War began. The US has not been able to find a viable democratic partner on the ground and instead its involvement has been to attack Islamic State, playing into Assad’s hands by defeating one of his enemies while he and his Russian backers targeted the moderate rebel groups. The US’ (and its regional and global partners) lack of a comprehensive Syria policy has allowed Russia, Turkey, and Iran steal a march on Washington and undermine its influence in the region. Just like Obama, Trump is wary of fully engaging with the war in Syria but cannot keep away. Despite his consistent criticism of his predecessor, President Trump has mimicked his predecessor in the eyes of many commentators.

President Trump may be hoping that the 14 April gives the US leverage to militarily withdraw from Syria, allowing a diplomatic settlement which would see Assad retained as leader but the conflict, and the routine use of chemical weapons to be ended. For the US-led strike against Syrian government targets to prove to be of any importance in the longer term, it must be built upon by the US and its allies. This settlement would be advantageous to all parties involved and could speed up the end of the war. An agreement on Syria could also improve US-Russia relations.

It has been suggested that President Trump’s foreign policy has not been driven by an understanding of the world and the United States’ place in it, but by domestic concerns. Though many US Presidents have taken positions in the foreign policy field to improve their domestic standing, this is at times more obvious with Trump. President Trump has been vociferous in his criticism of Iran and the nuclear peace deal orchestrated by President Obama. However, a lack of a comprehensive Syrian strategy plays into Iranian hands as they increase their influence in the war-torn country. Trump rails against the Trans-Pacific Partnership as this action is popular with his base, while perhaps failing to appreciate that the underlying reason for the trade deal was to help control the rise of China. Commentators have suggested that the airstrikes in Syria are another example of incoherence. It is claimed that Trump needs a distraction at this time. The strikes in Syria came as former FBI Director James Comey published a book strongly criticising the president, the FBI raided the President’s personal lawyer’s office reportedly in relation to payments made to an adult film star with who Trump had a relationship, and 2018 sees important mid-term elections. A third of the United States Senate and all the House of Representatives will face re-election. Trump’s approval ratings are dismally low and there are fears that the Republicans (who control the House, Senate, and Presidency) will lose significant numbers of legislators in November, with the potential to lose their majorities, stifling President Trump’s legislative agenda. Crises of the kinds previously mention will only further hamper his party’s chances in the elections; distracting from them is vital for both Trump his Republican Party.

There are also some fears that the President Trump’s hawkish advisors, led by new National Security Advisor John Bolton, are advising on a more assertive foreign policy in the Middle East. If this does occur, clashes may occur between Russia and the US which would see the situation spiral out of control with haste.

Russia

The attacks in Syria is the latest in a long line of events which have served to degrade the relationship between the West and Russia. UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres warns that the world may be returning to the Cold War, a sentiment which is difficult to ignore. The list includes the reciprocal expulsion of diplomats between Russia and the West after the poisoning of a former-Russian spy in Salisbury, UK in March of this year. While the perpetrator of the attack cannot be confirmed, Russia is almost certainly the culprit. Moscow was also accused of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections. The US and Russia have also repeatedly clashed at UN Security Council meetings in recent times over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Council vetoed a Russian resolution aimed at condemning the US-led strikes, while previously a US-led resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was vetoed by Russia.

The US-led strike may have serious repercussions for Russia. The apparent weakness of the Syrian missile defence system, and the failure of Russian forces to intervene, may force Moscow to increase its investment in Syria. This is unlikely to be a welcome expense at a time when Russia is facing low economic growth and an expensive incursion into eastern Ukraine. Some policymakers in Washington and Europe are likely to welcome this development, perhaps hoping Syria becomes to Russia what Iraq and Afghanistan have become to the US.

It remains possible, however, that this attack may play into the Kremlin’s hands. In some respects, this has given Russia some leverage over the United States. Commentators have suggested that the limited nature of the attacks, show the United States is not serious about getting involved in Syria, which may be welcomed by President Putin; it shows Russia that they have won this war and are making gains in the battle for influence in the Middle East. This is also something for which Russia can criticise the US. As hinted at by UNSG Guterres, according to international law, the US-led strikes on Syria may have been illegal as they were not authorised by the UN Security Council.

International Relations

The Syrian conflict has helped draw out the Middle East battle lines. The air strikes helped to further entrench the positions of both sides and raises the temperature in the region. The long-running conflict has helped bring the US and the West together with Saudi Arabia (and its Gulf allies), and Israel against Russia, Syria, and Iran, with Turkey leaning towards the US but often fluctuating. Indeed, the greatest surprise of recent regional developments is how Saudi Arabia and Israel have been drawn together; there is the potential for this thaw of relations to result in Saudi Arabia to recognising Israel diplomatically in future.

The attacks also demonstrate the rise of France under Macron. The French President has reportedly encouraged further US involvement in Syria, and, as the US and UK seemingly retreat from their positions as global and regional leaders, Macron’s France is stepping up.

In the short-term, this assault from the US and its allies is not expected to spark conflict or a regional war. However, further tit-for-tat sanctions and expelling of diplomats by the concerned countries should be expected.

Security Advice

High Political Risk

Companies and clients with relationships to governments in the West should ensure that their cyber security support is up to standard and that penetration tests are regularly carried. Russia has been accused in the past of orchestrating cyber attacks on its enemies and this is also likely to occur in relation to the US-led assault. It has already been noted that since the attack, that Russian ‘trolling’ online increased by 2000 per cent.

Travellers to the Middle East are advised to stay abreast of the latest news in case of the further developments which could have a negative impact on travel. Moreover, travellers should continue to avoid non-business essential travel to border regions in countries which neighbour Syria. It is also important to have evacuation plans in place for countries which neighbour Syria.

For Syria itself, all travel should be avoided unless it is business-critical. Due to the ongoing war, there are difficulties in travelling to the country and transport infrastructure is weak. Solace Global would advise clients to employ the highest possible security measures and journey management planning when visiting Syria. Solace Global would advise clients to employ a fully-armed and armoured transportation detail for the foreseeable future, including a secondary convoy vehicle. Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) is also strongly recommended prior to deployment.  We would also advise travellers to use travel-tracking technology in order to gain rapid access to the latest incidents and to notify others should an incident occur. These enhanced security measures are required throughout Syria, as the risk of travellers becoming caught up in terrorist attacks or airstrikes are high, regardless of the level of militarisation in the area.


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