insidepolicyglobalsecurityThe recent US airstrikes in Syria were meant to re-establish deterrence against chemical weapon use, writes John Mitton. However, contrary to popular wisdom, they actually represent a follow-up to – rather than a departure from – Obama’s own “red-line.”

By John Mitton, April 10, 2017

The decision by the Trump administration to launch airstrikes against Syrian Arab Airforce (SAA) targets, on the heels of the chemical weapons (CW) attack by the Bashar al-Assad regime, was the right one. Ironically, it was right precisely as it maintained continuity with the coercive diplomatic strategy initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

While Trump and many others apportioned blame to the Obama administration for its putative “red-line” failure vis-à-vis Syrian chemical weapons in 2013, the fact is the strategy pursued at that time resulted in the successful deterrence of CW in Syria for over three years (attacks involving chlorine gas notwithstanding – the use of chlorine as a weapon is banned but the possession of it is not, given its myriad industrial purposes; it is also significantly less deadly than the nerve agent sarin used last Tuesday).

The red-line Obama drew was very specific, tied exclusively to the use of CW. It was also credible, as the administration mobilized military assets to the region, communicated its intention to enforce the international norm against CW, and because of the US historic reputation for escalating interventions to the point of regime change (as in Bosnia 1995, Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, and Libya 2011).

Adversaries...need to know there is a point in acquiescing to threats/demands, otherwise they won’t concede under the belief that the US will just attack anyway.

This credibility was clear to Assad (and his backers in Moscow), which explains why Russia stepped in to broker a disarmament deal in which Syria acknowledged its chemical weapons stockpiles, acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and agreed to dismantle its capabilities. Once this deal was brokered, and the expressed purpose of the red-line was achieved, the Obama administration was correct to desist. Adversaries (for example, Iran or North Korea) need to know there is a point in acquiescing to threats/demands, otherwise they won’t concede under the belief that the US will just attack anyway.

Nonetheless, concerns lingered – including from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – that the Assad regime may have retained some of its more potent CW capabilities, a possibility confirmed last week. Tellingly, this means the Assad regime had these capabilities but opted to use chlorine, not sarin, since 2013. This further indicates the relative success of Obama’s deterrent strategy; Assad knew where the (red)line was drawn, and was sure to operate beneath it so as not to invite intervention.

Successful deterrence is rarely permanent, however. It unfolds over time and in stages, as adversaries’ probe for new information regarding American resolve. Sporadic chlorine attacks went unchallenged over the last several years. In May 2016, reports that the regime may have used sarin against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters failed to garner widespread international attention – likely because the targets were Islamist radicals and not Syrian civilians and children, and since the verification of such attacks is difficult.

Adversaries update their assessment of resolve by measuring the response to such probes as well as the signals being sent (public statements, policy positions) by American officials.

This pattern of gradual escalation and probing is consistent with other cases of American coercive diplomacy against intransigent regimes since the end of the Cold War. Adversaries update their assessment of resolve by measuring the response to such probes as well as the signals being sent (public statements, policy positions) by American officials.

If Trump deserves credit for responding to the latest attack, therefore, he must also bear some of the blame for precipitating it. Before the CW attack, comments from President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicating that Assad’s ouster was no longer a priority (or even a position) guiding US policy in Syria sent important signals to the regime, to say nothing of the three-plus years of past tweets and statements from Trump indicating a strong preference for prioritizing ISIS and keeping away from Assad.

Assad will be deterred from employing sarin in the near term, though he may over time initiate small scale probes involving CW

Significant also was (is) the Trump administration’s affinity for, if not alignment with, Moscow, Assad’s principle backer. The result was an erosion of the credibility of the red-line set by the Obama administration in 2013. Predictably, the Assad regime felt emboldened to probe and test the new administration by launching the CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Trump’s airstrikes have likely re-established this red-line. Assad will be deterred from employing sarin in the near term, though he may over time initiate small scale probes involving CW, as the pattern repeats.

The question now becomes potential escalation and mission creep. As mentioned, the Assad regime was keen to avoid the 2013 strikes because it knew that even limited attacks could result in deeper US involvement. Having taken action, the tendency is to succumb to rising expectations as to what might be achieved through the military option. The most recent example is, of course, the NATO campaign in Libya, where initially limited objectives snowballed into the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Assad’s record (even beyond the use of CW) is such that no one could plausibly argue he doesn’t deserve to go, but the implications of his removal are enough to make the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya look almost paradisiac.

As in 2013, many will conflate a red-line (or in this case airstrikes) against CW as a commitment to end the Syrian civil war. In the immediate aftermath of the strikes, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement to this effect, calling for further action to degrade the SAA and damage Assad. This sentiment is likely to be shared by those who see Trump’s actions as the tipping point for more robust American efforts to end the violence that has torn the country apart since 2011.

Whether this broader goal is one that should be pursued is an important debate. It is crucial to remember, however, that the airstrikes earlier this week were about the more limited goal of deterring CW. President Trump, in maintaining the course laid out by President Obama, almost certainly unwittingly (such are, occasionally, the ironies of international politics) scored a success in this regard. Both Obama and Trump were correct in their formulation that punishing and deterring the use of CW is in the interest of the United States.

Whether Trump can, like his predecessor, grasp the nuance of the middle position between doing nothing (and allowing the free and unfettered use of CW) and full-scale engagement (escalation toward war and regime change) remains to be seen.

John Mitton is a Doctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Southern California. His new book with Frank P. Harvey, Fighting for Credibility: US Reputations in International Politics, was published by University of Toronto Press in January of this year.

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