Syria strikes fail to alter Assad’s calculus on chemical weapons, reveals risk-averse US administration

This section is an extract from Le Beck's Weekly Security Brief that provides insights on more strategic issues.

Following a week of tension and speculation in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s threat to retaliate against the use of chemical weapons against the opposition enclave of Ghouta, multiple strikes were carried out by assets belonging to the US, France, and the UK. The strikes targeted three main sites, including the Barzah research centre in Damascus and two storage facilities west of Homs. Further reports indicating that additional facilities were targeted have not been confirmed by any official sources.

While Russia claimed that the Syrian regime’s air defence was able to shoot down most of the missiles fired, the Pentagon, as well as the French Ministry of Defence, both denied this. Satellite images of the Barzah Research Centre also show that the targeted area was completely destroyed.

Of the various responses likely presented to Trump and his French and British counterparts, the one picked by the tripartite coalition certainly wasn’t one of the most extensive ones. Both the number and nature of the targets were limited, with the strikes focusing exclusively on Syria’s chemical program rather than on any of the vectors used to deliver such weapons.

Concerns over the possibility that the strikes could aim to disable or damage the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) prompted efforts by the regime to move its main assets within Russian/Russian-protected air bases, yet this did not materalise. It is likely that, while Russia stood out of the way of the strikes, it did waive the threat of a response or more significant efforts to protect Syrian assets should the West decide to target Assad’s air force. Yet, in light of the precedent of the strike against the Shayrat air base last year, such threats aren’t enough to rule out strikes against the Syrian air force and air bases.

This sends the broader message that the US and its allies do not seek to impact the civil war. The US is, rather, focusing on a narrower approach that also limits the risk of an escalation both with Russia and Iran despite Trump’s initial tweet warning both countries.

This is an important conclusion to draw from the strike, particularly as it relates to the decision-making of the US administration with the arrival of John Bolton who, along with Trump, favoured a broader strike, while Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis sought to avoid an escalation. The fact that Mattis was able to prevail in spite of Bolton and Trump does highlight the fact that the recent changes within the administration may not drastically change the course of US foreign policy, although it also may be too early to draw that conclusion.

Regardless, even within the framework of a narrower effort to only specifically target the chemical program, the strikes were limited. To be sure, they did result in extensive damage to the targeted facilities, particularly the Barzah Research Centre, sending the message that the three countries do have the capability to put key facilities used by the regime out of order for good. Yet, the limited number of targets, the absence of several other relevant facilities, and and the significant delay between the threat to strike and the strikes themselves likely resulted in only limited damage to Assad’s chemical stockpile.

What’s more, despite the cost now clearly associated with the use of chemical weapons, this is still lower than the likely losses Assad and his allies would have suffered in Douma had the main opposition group there, Jaish al-Islam, continued to refuse to surrender. Despite years of siege, the group still had thousands of fighters, tanks, and even anti-aircraft weaponry that would have made even a limited offensive aimed at breaking Jaish al-Islam’s will costly for the regime, which is shorter in manpower than it is in chemical facilities. While Assad initially feared that Trump would order an immediate and extensive strike instead of a response similar to the one in Shayrat, such concerns were unfounded and the use of chemical weapons can still be considered “worth it” for the regime. The fact that they announced the “liberation” of Ghouta the day after the strikes was certainly meant to highlight that thought.

In the wake of the strikes, little will change in terms of the dynamic of the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces, along with other pro-regime militias fighting, will likely be deployed to conduct offensives against two small opposition pockets, namely, the Rastan pocket and the opposition enclave in the Qalamoun, before potentially turning their eyes towards larger opposition-held territories in northwestern and southern Syria. During these battles, Assad or his commanders on the ground will still consider using chemical weapons if the cost of such use is still assessed to be inferior to the potential losses expected from a conventional offensive.

Iran and Russia are also liable to be unphased by the strikes. If anything, and as noted above, the decision-making behind the response highlights the fact that, despite the recent appointment of Iran hawks, the Pentagon’s position that the US is in Syria to fight Islamic State (IS) still prevails. Tehran and Moscow, who both favour a US withdrawal, can further count on Trump’s own isolationist reflexes and view of the Middle East as a “troubled place” from which the US should exit as quickly as possible.

In that context, a direct response to these strikes would be a mistake, despite explicit Iranian threats, as it could force Washington and its allies back into the conflict, something neither Tehran nor Russia want. Pro-Iranian militias will, however, likely continue to try and undermine the US presence in northeastern Syria, either by pushing into remaining IS territory on the northern bank of the Euphrates, or by staging indirect attacks against the US and its allies through proxies. While such a response may be accelerated by the strikes, it would likely have happened regardless, and it is unlikely that Tehran will take any harsher measures unless the US does actually implement a more proactive anti-Iran policy.