Quick thoughts on Syria strike

I wrote this up quickly on Saturday for friends, and it seemed to get a positive reaction, so I decided to expand a bit and send it out to the wider world…

The United States (and the Trump administration) came out well. The would saw a measured response that showed US willingness to follow up words with actions, while also showing that Trump’s rash tweets do not equal rash actions (at least vis-a-vis Russia). Jim Mattis in particular showed that he is the chief voice of reason and restraining figure in the administration.

At the same time, the strikes accomplished little in practical terms. Syria’s ability to make and use chemical weapons was largely unaffected, because what they are using now is chlorine gas, rather than the sarin that was made in its chemical weapons program prior to 2013. Chlorine gas is much easier to make and is almost certainly made at sites other than the ones that were targeted (and even if it was being made there, it can relatively easily be made elsewhere).

For this reason, Syria (and Assad) also came out well. For the price of a few destroyed buildings they got to take over Douma and wipe out the last rebel controlled zone near Damascus. The main question is the extent to which the strikes will deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. My guess is that there will be some short-term deterrent effect (because of worries that the next strike will be more damaging), but little long-term effect — because of beliefs that US memories fade and because of cost-benefit calculations that show that use of chemical weapons in certain situations is highly effective in demoralizing enemies and causing them to surrender (see Douma) while also forcing somewhat reluctant allies such as Russia to publicly support Assad.

Russia is a (minor) loser for this round — Russian officials made big loud statements early on, but then clearly got scared of being painted into a corner and started backing off a few days ago. In the end, the situation showed that Russia cannot deter the United States from hitting an ally, but it can limit the extent of the strike and the choice of targets. Also, Syria’s (older) Russian-made air defenses were completely ineffective, while potentially more effective modern air defenses under Russian control were not activated. In other words, the US strikes clearly showed both the extent and the limits of Russian influence in the region. Russian leaders clearly care about this image problem, thus the somewhat ridiculous statements about Syrian air defenses successfully intercepting US missiles supposedly aimed at airfields that the US and its allies did not target.

The military balance in the region is clearly revealed. In a few days, the US and its allies were able to gather a set of forces that are much stronger than what Russia could bring to bear in the region. This is not the early 1970s, when much of the world believed that the Soviet Union could more or less match the maximum US presence in the Eastern Med (even if present-day Russian analysts are skeptical about the actual strength of Russian military forces in the region at the time). The Russian military (in terms of conventional forces) is stronger than it was a few years ago and is more than a match for any of its other adversaries, but it’s still far weaker than the US military.

Finally, the impact of the strike on US domestic politics is pretty certainly going to be short-term and very limited. Some of Trump’s isolationist allies on the far right were appalled and highly critical, but they will come back to the fold soon enough since they have no alternative to supporting Trump. What’s more, Democratic politicians’ critiques that the attack should not have been done without Congressional authorization are not likely to last long, because actually having that debate in Congress is not in their interest politically (which way to vote — to authorize Trump to use force or to allow other countries to carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity?). Better to just carp from the sidelines on this issue and go back to the various scandals after a couple of days.

So, to sum up, the world avoided a big international crisis through a combination of US restraint, Russian desire to avoid escalation in a situation where it did not have escalation dominance, and good use of US-Russian deconfliction channels. The strike itself was not particularly effective at achieving its stated goals vis-a-vis Syria, but was good at signaling US intent and capabilities for the future (including the limits of that intent). The major problem that remains is that given what I described above, Assad is unlikely to have been deterred from future use of chemical weapons and therefore we may well be back in the same place again a few months or a year from now.

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MCIS 2017: Cooperation lost in translation

Mike Kofman and I wrote up our joint impressions of the 2017 MCIS conference for The National Interest. Here’s a taste of the key points…


This year the conference attempted to balance a confrontational tone with offerings of cooperation, in particular on counterterrorism, which was the overall theme for the event. But judging from much of the discussion, the real topic should have been information warfare, which not only made its debut at this conference, but permeated many of the talking points. “Fake news,” “post-truth world” and numerous other terms in the modern discourse on information warfare were sprinkled throughout speeches, with a separate panel dedicated to the topic. “Information war” had clearly arrived in a big way, and not just because nobody could stop looking at their smartphone during the conference.

MCIS 2017 proved another interesting foray into the minds of Russia’s national-security aristocracy, with a veritable lineup of who’s who in terms of leadership, including Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, Sergey Lavrov, Alexander Bortnikov, Sergei Naryshkin and, of course, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. However, from the very opening it was clear that Russian leadership was somewhat out of practice when it came to speaking about a cooperative agenda, and while their rancor over long-standing problems with the West came through, the willingness to work together was much less apparent. In general, they had trouble holding back sincerely held sentiments on NATO’s activities in Europe, missile defense and the United States’ foreign policy writ large, which got in the way of the desire to extend an olive branch to the West.

Despite the fire and brimstone, the Russian leadership did signal a desire to reengage with the United States, while compartmentalizing other issues in the relationship, but it was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Moscow did not come off as desperate to cooperate, but if anything as more firm. Fighting ISIS together was the focal point of Russian commentary on prospective cooperation with the United States, but these points came with reproaches on violating countries’ sovereignty, and the recent cruise missile strike in Syria, which was termed a crude violation of international law. It seemed that Russian officials were trying to speak from a position of strength.

Click here to read the full article.

President Trump and U.S.-Russian relations

Michael Kofman and I wrote a short piece for the Monkey Cage on the potential impact of the election on U.S.-Russian relations. Go read the whole thing, which also includes contributions from a number of other scholars.

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Donald Trump’s victory has the potential to fundamentally reshape U.S.-Russian relations, but whether such a realignment will actually take place will depend on how Trump chooses to learn and appreciate the past failures of several U.S. attempts to engage Russia. It remains to be seen whether he will be willing to follow the advice of professionals, or if he will strike off on his own. U.S.-Russian relations are founded on a complex history, with structural differences among national elites that will prove difficult to bridge through personal rapport among the national leaders. Trump’s first problem will be that other than a small number of close advisers who share his instincts to engage Putin, most of the policy establishment is likely to hold hardened views of Putin’s Russia, ranging from distrustful to confrontational. Rapid change is unlikely to come quickly, despite the personal attention of the president-elect, because the bureaucracy will initially take an obstructionist position.

Having said that, we can make a few predictions regarding policy initiatives that are likely to be undertaken by President Trump. First of all, he is likely to restore the full range of government contacts, including between the two countries’ military establishments. Second, he will pursue more extensive cooperation with Russia in Syria, against ISIS but also against other anti-Assad groups that could conceivably be described as Islamist. Most likely there will be a complete abandonment of the existing policy formulation that there is a moderate Syrian opposition and viable alternatives to Assad, which will closely bridge the U.S. position with that of Moscow’s. And finally, the active sanctions policy against Russia is likely to end, though existing sanctions will not be lifted without a quid pro quo.

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US-Russian Cooperation in the Caspian: An Opportunity Worth Pursuing

For the United States, the strategic importance of the Caspian region has increased dramatically in recent years. The Caspian littoral states have come to provide an important set of opportunities for the U.S. in a strategically significant region. Now, however, they face a range of significant security threats in the region, which have resulted from a combination of changes in the region’s geopolitical environment resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union and conflicts over the division of marine and seabed resources in the Caspian Sea. Specific threats include smuggling of narcotics and other contraband, proliferation of WMD or related materials, and the limited reach of government authority in remote land and maritime areas. Further, Caspian energy security is particularly vulnerable to a number of regional actors. There is also the potential for armed conflict that can spill into the wider region; in particular, Azerbaijan and Armenia may come to blows over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, terrorism presents a threat—both directly to several of the littoral states, and indirectly to the entire region, which serves as a transit corridor for terrorist group members traveling between the northern Caucasus and Afghanistan. An important consideration is that the effects of these threats can and do proliferate beyond the region. It is in the interests of the U.S. government  to help its Caspian regional partners achieve or enhance the ability to deter, detect, and respond to these threats themselves before the problems spread. Continue reading