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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Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.