- By Brian KatulisBrian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security.
The Trump administration’s cruise missile strikes against Syria were targeted to impose a cost for the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack against its own citizens and aimed at shaping the Syrian government’s future actions. But the attack opens the door to more risks — and the White House needs a sharp focus on preventing a wider escalation while continuing the progress in the fight against the Islamic State along with efforts to deter Iran destabilizing actions in the region.
One vital next step for the United States is to leverage cooperation with partners in the region to protect U.S. troops and prevent a wider escalation that could destabilize and undercut the anti-Islamic State campaign.
For every action, there is a reaction — and the Middle East today remains a dangerous tinderbox. The Syrian conflict has grown into a regional and geopolitical vortex sucking in many outside powers.
Nearly four years after the Assad regime gassed and killed 1,400 of its own people, the costs have been tremendous. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died and millions more have been pushed out of their homes. Terrorist groups including the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates acquired a new haven.
The fiction that Syria’s conflict could be “contained” ignores the global reality of the impact of instability in the heart of the Middle East — including the effect on the politics of fear in Europe and the United States.
Now that the Trump administration has taken a military step, it is important not to get lost in the weeds of tactics and political dimensions of the debate. One key part of maintaining a strategic focus is anticipating the actions of others with a stake in Syria, on three key fronts.
First, center stage is Russia — which intervened in Syria in September 2015 and has a military presence on the ground. Russia’s condemned Trump’s strike, suspended an agreement with Washington aimed at preventing conflict between the U.S. and Russian militaries, and has reportedly moved more military assets into the region.
The quiet backchannel discussions between Russia and the United States, rather than the public statements and gestures, are essential for preventing a wider escalation. U.S. military planners took care to ensure that last night’s strikes did not kill Russian military forces, which would have introduced even more unpredictability in Syria.
This discussion with Russia might also provide an avenue for making a new attempt to shift the diplomacy on Syria — but the United States should not be naïve about the possible courses of action, as it has been in the past. The Assad regime’s most recent chemical weapons attack starkly demonstrates that Russia is neither a reliable counterterrorism partner nor a force for stability in Syria. Moscow’s consistent backing of the Assad regime has prolonged Syria’s civil war, encouraged Assad to commit war crimes, and facilitated the rise of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Its scorched-earth counterterrorism tactics both violate the laws and norms of war and fail to defeat terrorist groups on the battlefield
A second key front is managing the threats and risks from the Syrian regime and its backers, including Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. For the past few years, Israel has carefully managed and dealt with threats emanating from Syria and Lebanon, and the United States needs to continue to coordinate closely with Israel to protect itself from any reactions. The United States should also work closely with other partners like Jordan, with whom Trump recently met, to ensure their stability in the face of possible blowback from these moves.
Last by not least, the ongoing fight against the Islamic State remains a core interest. Working with coalition partners, the United States should seek to continue the recent progress against the group while safeguarding the protection of U.S. forces. Nearly 1,000 American troops are already on the ground in Syria and could be vulnerable to regime retaliation; the roughly 6,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq could be targeted by Iranian-backed militias as well. These risks should also be considered by military planners and policymakers as they move forward.
Last night, the Trump administration made the decision to go it alone, acting without much consultation with Congress or notice to the American people. The shift is a dramatic change from the signals it was sending just earlier in the week and has produced a sense of whiplash. The sad irony of President Trump’s newfound interest in protecting Syrian civilians while also banning desperate Syrian refugees from entering the United States is duly noted.
But now that the United States has taken action, it should take robust steps to ensure that these strikes, which come at a time of operational and tactical military escalations in Iraq and Yemen, are nested in a wider regional strategy that places a high premium on working closely with our partners in the region to prevent a wider escalation. This requires an investment in diplomatic tools — which Trump has proposed undercutting in his budget — and it requires an integrated strategy to make sure that America is not just adding fuel to a fire that has led to the collapse of states across the region.
Photo credit: FORD WILLIAMS/U.S. Navy via Getty Images