Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.
Attention is focused on Washington DC today as the world waits to see how the United States chooses to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria on 7 April. This morning it was announced that President Trump will not be attending the Summit of the Americas in Peru, or traveling to Bogota, Columbia afterwards as planned. Instead, the president will remain in Washington to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world” according to the White House. This recent development has increased speculation that US military action could be coming soon. Reports that Trump has been in consultation with London and Paris suggest a broader Western military response is possible as well.
In fact, the possibility of British involvement at the very least is growing. A short time ago I spoke to an associate of mine who lives a short distance away from RAF Akrotri, the British airbase on Cyprus. He verified that the level of activity there has increased over the past few hours and shows no sign of dropping off. Right now I am trying to obtain more information from him. If I do, I will pass it along.
On the military front, numerous reports surfaced yesterday that the destroyer USS Donald Cook was moving into waters near Syria, and Russian aircraft were conducting low level flights nearby. The Pentagon denied the reports and they were never confirmed by any major independent media outlets. If Cook is in the vicinity of Syria it makes sense for Russian aircraft to harass any potential TLAM shooters, and keep a close eye on them as the situation unfolds. It should also be noted that given the range of the TLAM, Cook does not have to be anywhere close to the Syrian coastline. She could launch cruise missiles from practically anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, given political considerations and such, it does make sense to volley TLAMs as close to Syria as the situation allows.
It is mid-afternoon here in the eastern United States and there is much happening with regards to Syria from Washington to Europe, and the Med. I’ll try and post another update early in the evening and offer some thoughts about if or when military action against the Syrian government might begin.
If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.
Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.
The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.
Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.
Thursday’s remarks by President Trump regarding a possible US withdrawal from Syria coming ‘very soon’ has sparked concern in Washington and beyond. US involvement in Syria has been a hotly debated issue among Trump’s advisers and aides. Some feel that if the US is to withdraw from Syria, it needs to be phased, and staggered to reduce the risk of creating a vacuum, similar to what happened in Iraq after Barack Obama withdrew US forces in 2011 which contributed to the rise of ISIS. Other administration members support an immediate, and complete removal of the US presence in Syria. For weeks the president has been hinting to his advisers about his desire to pull US troops out of Syria, a major turn from the administration’s supposed current Syrian policy. Trump’s remarks might be based on the presumption that with the war against ISIS in Syria is nearing an end there is no other purpose for keeping US troops in Syria. Many Pentagon and State Department officials believe otherwise, pointing to the worsening situation in northern Syria and a desire to use US forces and other means of support to help in stabilizing the region.
With the Easter holiday upon us, I’m cutting this update short, but will return to the subject Tuesday morning. Syria is heating up again, and not only because of President Trump’s remarks.
The Israeli government admitted it was responsible for a 2007 airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria capable of producing weapons grade material. The attack was launched on 6 September, 2007. Eight Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am multirole fighters (essentially F-15E Strike Eagles) struck the reactor located in the Deir ez-Zor region and destroyed it completely. The nuclear facility was under construction when it was hit. A number of North Korean technicians and workers were among the casualties. North Korea and Iran were working with Syria to build the facility. There was widespread speculation at the time that Iran and North Korea helped to fund and construct the site in order to use it to produce weapons grade material in the future should their own facilities become unavailable. In the aftermath of the strike, Syria, Israel, and every other nation in the region kept quiet publicly about what had actually been hit. The truth was known, however, in capital cities from the Middle East to Washington DC and beyond. President George W Bush even mentioned the attack in his memoirs released in 2010.
Israel chose now to release the details about Operation Outside the Box, as it was officially know, to serve as a shot across Iran’s bow. Tel Aviv wants Tehran to know that Israel is willing and able to use force in order to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2007 strike against the Syrian site, as well as the 1981 Osirak raid, serve as proof of the Israeli government’s commitment to the Begin Doctrine. Iran’s continuing quest to gain influence in Syria, coupled with last month’s Israeli military action against Iranian targets inside of Syria have made Israel reconsider whether or not Iran will abide by the boundaries that are currently in place to prevent armed conflict between the two nations.
Israel’s other motivation for releasing details about its 2007 action could be the increasing possibility of the United States walking away from the Iran nuclear deal entirely. At present, efforts to revamp the deal are underway, however, it appears unlikely a middle ground will be reached by US and European officials. In the event of the deal being scrapped, Israel is concerned with how Iran will respond. Reminding Tehran of Israel’s willingness to use force against its enemies nuclear ambitions may help deter Iran from resuming its nuclear program…..assuming they even stopped it in the first place.