Foreign Relations & International Law

Trump Launched a Punitive Strike on Syria. Now What?

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, April 17, 2018, 10:00 AM

U.S. Launches Punitive Strikes on Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Facilities

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U.S. Launches Punitive Strikes on Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Facilities

U.S., British, and French forces barraged Syrian chemical weapons facilities in Damascus and Homs with airstrikes early on Saturday morning. Pentagon officials said that all of the 105 missiles that were launched found their targets before Syrian air defenses were activated, but tempered the assessment of their success by noting that the attack did not eliminate the threat of further chemical weapons use by the regime. “I would not say they’d be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future,” Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, told the Daily Beast, though he said Assad would likely “think twice.”

The strikes were a response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on Douma on April 7. After a week of suspense and heated threats and debate, the U.S. response—so far, at least—has been remarkably similar to the U.S. strike on the Shayrat airbase this time last year in response to the regime’s use of sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun. In a statement delivered on Friday night, President Donald Trump explicitly framed the attack as a limited punitive strike to deter further chemical weapons use. “The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons,” he said. Secretary of Defense James Mattis described it as a “one-off”—not an opening salvo in an escalation of the U.S. role in Syria. In the days leading up to the strike, Mattis reportedly expressed reservations about more aggressive plans and was concerned about the potential for escalation, especially with Russia, in meetings with the president and other administration officials. “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last Thursday. “But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control—if you get my drift on that.” The Wall Street Journal reports that National Security Advisor John Bolton favored a “ruinous” strike targeting the regime and Syrian national infrastructure, but was overruled.

It is unclear where the Trump administration’s Syria policy will go from here. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley threatened additional strikes on Sunday, relaying a message from the president to the Security Council that, “If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded.” The United States, France, and Britain also presented a new draft resolution to the Security Council yesterday calling for the resumption of “good faith” peace negotiations and an investigation of chemical weapons use. Over the weekend, Haley promised new sanctions targeting Russian companies tied to Assad’s chemical weapons program, but Trump has now placed those on hold and the Washington Post reported Monday that they are unlikely to be implemented unless another serious chemical attack occurs.

The Trump administration inherited a Syria policy that divided the country and its civil war into two parts; the war between the rebels and the Assad regime and the counterterrorism operation to suppress the Islamic State. The Trump administration has shown even less interest in intervening in the civil war than the Obama administration; Trump discontinued what remained of the U.S. program to assist Syrian rebels last July and has even been reticent to do anything to control the spillover effects of the conflict. The United States has resettled only 11 Syrian refugees this year.

Trump has also signaled that he intends to cut back in eastern Syria at the first opportunity. Just a few weeks ago, he said that U.S. troops would “be coming out of Syria, like, very soon” and froze $200 million that the United States had pledged to an international fund for reconstruction in areas devastated by the war with the Islamic State. The United States currently has approximately 2,000 troops and a significant contractor presence deployed in Syria. With the Islamic State’s large-scale activity tamped down, the U.S. mission at this point is focused on bolstering local groups and, in essence, acting as a peacekeeping force to prevent clashes between Kurdish troops, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army militias, and Russian- and Iranian-backed regime proxies, all of whom covet the territory previously occupied by the Islamic State. Though Trump has suggested withdrawing the U.S. troop presence in time for the midterm elections later this year, Haley said yesterday that U.S. troops would remain indefinitely. The Wall Street Journal reported last night that National Security Advisor John Bolton is reportedly discussing plans for a multinational Arab force—drawing on troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt—that could replace the U.S. presence, but experts are skeptical about the viability of the plan.

The day after the multinational strike, the Assad regime tried to present an air of calm, and his supporters rallied defiantly in the streets of Damascus. Farther east, regime forces took full control of Douma, and in Homs and Hama, regime aircraft bombarded civilian neighborhoods. Assad’s forces are expected to launch a new offensive against the Yarmouk camp area in coming days, the last rebel-held district near Damascus. But Syria also remains on edge. On Monday night, Syrian air defenses fired salvos into empty skies; pro-regime officials say it was a false alarm resulting from a cyberattack, according to Haaretz.

Russia reacted to Saturday’s strikes with indignation. A statement from the Kremlin said that the attack “could lead to chaos in international relations,” noting that they lacked a mandate from the United Nations. The lack of an authorization by the United Nations is an accurate criticism, thoughtfully explained in posts by Laurie Blank, Jack Goldsmith, and Oona Hathaway here on Lawfare. As Blank writes, “Although international law flatly prohibits the use of chemical weapons—in wartime or peacetime—international law also prohibits the use of force by one state against another.”

Other countries have struck a more moderate tone. Turkey supported the strikes but also cautioned that its policy and interests in Syria are independent of those of the United States on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other. “Turkey’s Syria policy isn’t to stand with or against any country. There is no change to the policy Turkey has been carrying out,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said yesterday while on a trip to Qatar. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office told reporters that the recent events had not hindered Russian-Turkish cooperation on Syria.

Reports of Libyan General’s Death Spark Fears of Renewed Violence

The Libyan civil war has been in a relative lull in recent months, but with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the powerful head of the Libyan National Army, hospitalized for urgent medical care, experts are concerned that a vacuum could soon emerge, and renewed violence with it. Conflicting reports have suggested that the 75-year-old strongman may have suffered a stroke or possibly even died while seeking treatment in France. The reports have been challenged by Haftar’s staff who claim he is recovering and will return to Libya within days, and Ghassan Salame, the U.N. special envoy for Libya, told reporters that he had spoken to Haftar after his hospitalization.

The unconfirmed reports about Haftar’s failing health may prove false, but the past week has rattled Libyan politics. “Haftar’s death or incapacitation would produce a leadership vacuum on which his rivals will almost certainly seek to capitalize. Haftar brought a number of disparate forces together under the umbrella of the LNA, including various southern and eastern tribal militias and hardline Salafists. Absent his leadership, this ragtag group of fighters may well collapse,” Elissa Miller and Tarek Radwan wrote for MENASource. “Tensions could also escalate between Haftar loyalists and those in Benghazi who oppose the dominance of Haftar’s Furjan tribe, as well as Benghazi residents unhappy with the growing presence of Salafist fighters backing Haftar in the city.”

Haftar has at times been an obstacle to political reconciliation in Libya, but his death could also forestall a resolution and cut short progress on restoring Libya’s economy. As a recent Chatham House report by Tim Eaton notes, Libya cut down on human smuggling and boosted oil revenue last year. But the country’s war economy—which relies on extortion, illegal trafficking in people, drugs, and fuel, and a shadow state of semi-official economic institutions—goes beyond these issues and perpetuates the country’s instability. “As the war economy persists ... the prospects for the restoration of functioning central governance in Libya become more distant,” Eaton writes. “This threatens to create a vicious cycle that will accelerate state failure.”

Gulf Feud Ruptures Emirati-Somali Ties

The feud between the Gulf states and Qatar has spilled over into East Africa, where both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are competing for business and influence. After running into difficulties with a port in Djibouti earlier this year, the Emirati company DP World is now roiling Somali politics. Though once strong partners, the relationship between the Emirati and Somali governments has been strained since President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, more popularly known as Farmajo, asserted his neutrality in the Gulf dispute last year. Farmajo’s election in February 2017 was marred by accusations of corruption; as The Guardian reported at the time, the election “provoked fierce interest from rival Middle Eastern powers keen to extend their influence in a strategically important part of the world. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all been accused of funding the campaigns of specific candidates and thus indirectly fuelling corruption.” Though also supported by several Western states, Farmajo, a U.S.-Somali dual national, was seen as being close to Qatar.

Tensions only worsened when, in March, DP World granted a 19 percent stake in the port of Berbera to Ethiopia. The move was seen in Mogadishu as an affront for two reasons: first, because the Somali government does not recognize the independence of the breakaway territory of Somaliland, where the port is located, and second, because of its adversarial relationship with Ethiopia, which Somali officials have accused of violating Somali sovereignty. The Somali parliament, independent of the president and prime minister, voted unanimously to cancel the deal in March, prompting a political crisis in which supporters of the president challenged the speaker, Mohamed Osman Jawari, with a vote of no confidence. The confrontation almost turned violent and was only defused after the intervention of Somali special forces and African Union peacekeepers. Jawari resigned days later.

The Somali-Emirati relationship may have reached a breaking point last week when Somali forces seized $9.6 million being transported by Emirati diplomats to Mogadishu in unmarked bags. Emirati officials have said that the money was for the salaries of Somali troops being trained and supported by the United Arab Emirates, but Somali officials told Voice of America that Emirati diplomats refused to allow a security check of the bags and had provided incorrect information about the source of the plane on which the funds would arrive. The money is reportedly now being held by the Somali government as it investigates whether the funds were intended for the training program or bribing politicians, the government said in a statement. In the meantime, Somali officials said the government would take over responsibility for the Emirati military training program, and the Emirati government announced on Sunday that it was officially breaking off the program.

The Gulf crisis is now nearly a year old, and though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still doggedly pursuing their push for political dominance in the Gulf, other partners are losing patience. U.S. President Donald Trump seemed initially to support the campaign to isolate Qatar—undercutting his secretary of state in the process—but even he seems to be moving on. Trump hosted Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, at the White House last week and praised him for his dedication to combatting terrorist financing and Qatar’s purchases of U.S. weapons systems.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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