- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The White House is weighing strikes against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapons attack earlier this week that killed at least 70 civilians in Idlib province, which President Donald Trump said on Wednesday had changed his thinking about U.S. policy in the war-torn country.
But shifting the ongoing U.S. military effort in Syria to target the regime of Bashar al Assad and his forces, rather than the Islamic State, would be legally and operationally tricky. Syria’s air defenses are robust, and existing legal authorities to fight Islamist terrorists likely wouldn’t apply to a sovereign state like Syria.
Pentagon officials say Syrian aircraft were operating in the vicinity of the attack on Tuesday, but the Syrian government and their Russian allies deny any involvement. Soil samples have been sent to Turkey for examination, and international chemical weapons inspectors are investigating the incident.
Trump said Wednesday that the use of chemical weapons by Damascus, at least the fourth such strike in recent years, had “crossed a lot of lines.” Other administration officials, led by America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, took an even more strident tone. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said Wednesday.
Speaking with reporters briefly in Florida Thursday, Trump wouldn’t expand on his plans but said since Assad is in power, “and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”
On Thursday, top GOP lawmakers also called for punitive strikes on Assad, who just days ago the Trump administration suggested would be left untroubled to finish wiping out rebel forces opposed to his rule.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement Thursday that Assad “must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack,” and the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State targets should be repurposed to “ground Assad’s air force.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday voiced support for U.S. airstrikes against the regime of Assad, whom Turkey has long wanted to see ousted.
A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that if ordered, U.S. forces in the region “would be prepared in short order to proceed” against a variety of targets, including chemical facilities and airfields. Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to brief Trump on potential targets in Syria over the coming days while Trump is in Florida meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But shifting the U.S. effort away from battling terrorists and toward the regime would do more than mark an abrupt change in the U.S. approach to the Syrian conflict. It would raise a series of legal questions, threaten deadly clashes with Syrian and even Russian forces, and risks collateral damage on the ground.
The Pentagon has long had a list of Syrian weapons-research facilities the Assad regime kept from weapons inspectors in 2014 when the Obama administration celebrated the supposed dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Military officials warn that before any attacks occur against either chemical plants or Syrian government sites, they’ll careful weigh potential side effects, including hitting sites that could spread dangerous chemicals to civilian areas.
There have been a series of cases in recent weeks where U.S. pilots have been accused of bombing civilian targets in Iraq and Syria. The largest was in Mosul, where more than 100 people may have died in a building near an airstrike. Several U.S.-led investigations are ongoing.
Further, there are questions over what legal authorities would permit American strikes against the Syrian government. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force — which authorizes U.S. forces to attack the Taliban and al Qaeda — is already stretched dangerously thin to justify strikes against the Islamic State. It would not seem to authorize strikes against the Syrian government. Some Democratic lawmakers have warned Trump he would need congressional authorization to strike Syria.
There is also little chance the Trump administration would be able to obtain a U.N. Security Council resolution approving military action, as Russia and China would certainly object to any strikes against a regime they support.
But government lawyers can look back to the military interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia under the Bill Clinton administration for controversial precedents to support short-term bombing campaigns ordered by the president for humanitarian ends.
“The key part is the claim that this is a limited military involvement,” said Bobby Chesney, a legal professor at the University of Texas who specializes in international law. But “these are things that don’t get resolved in court, they get resolved politically,” by Congress funding the operation, he added.
Traveling with the president in Florida, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Thursday that Assad’s days may be numbered, a direct refutation of his comments last week that the Syrian people were the only ones who could remove him from power.
“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” Tillerson said.
Defense Department officials aren’t worried by the legal questions, though. “I don’t think there would be a problem with authorities,” the defense official said, but said military commanders “need to be clear in every way what we want, both in statements and actions, before any actions were taken.”
Many in uniform are also concerned about Syria’s advanced, Russian-made air defenses, which one officer said “are substantial,” as well as the potential of even more advanced Russian air defenses in western Syria locking on to American aircraft or cruise missiles.
Given the Russian military presence in Syria, the risk of hitting Russian troops is real.
The dangers of confusion on the battlefield are real. Last September, U.S. and coalition aircraft mistakenly bombed a Syrian army unit, killing dozens of soldiers.
“It would be up to the Russians to figure out if they would even acknowledge where their forces are” to the U.S. military, said Michael Kofner, a Russia analyst at the CNA Corporation.
Last fall, Russian military officials warned that their air defense systems would target any unidentified object that came with their range, even if they were U.S. aircraft or cruise missiles.
Under that scenario, Washington and Moscow could “end up in this very tense standoff in Syria,” Kofman said. “The military reality is that this can get hairy at the operational level, very quickly.”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force