Saturday, 8 April 2017

Trump's message of 59 precision missiles into Syria

In the wake of a limited US strike on Syria, in which two US Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base in western Homs, the Kremlin reportedly pulled a 2015 agreement with Washington designed to avoid military collisions in Syrian airspace. Later, however, US military officials say Russia agreed to maintain the deconfliction hotline on Syria meant to contain midair collisions. 

However, now the Russian Defense Ministry says it is suspending its deconfliction efforts to avoid aerial confrontation with the United States in Syria starting April 8. Russia has reportedly sent a note to the US defence attache in Moscow, informing the US government of the suspension. 

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he considers the strikes an act of aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext. The incident will cause significant damage to US-Russia relations, a spokesman says. Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman says the US strikes were planned well in advance and that the chemical weapons attack simply provided an excuse for the United States to attack. And a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman says Moscow intends to strengthen Syria's air-defense system.

On the other side, the US Department of Defense is investigating whether Russia was involved in the April 5 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held territory in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province, senior US military officials say.

A US defence official also says Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich RFS-494 had crossed through the Bosporus on April 7 and is now in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian officials say the frigate was heading for the Syrian port of Tartus as part of a routine trip.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov spoke April 7 before the UN Security Council, which is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the ongoing situation. Safronkov told reporters the council had reached a deadlock and says the "negative consequences" of the action would rest on the shoulders of the United States.

Interestingly, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Washington informed Ankara before carrying out April 6 missile strikes. Mr Cavusoglu told reporters US ambassador in Ankara John Bass contacted the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly and that other anti-Islamic State coalition members had been informed as well. The foreign minister also claimed to have spoken with his Russian, French and German counterparts about the matter.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the cruise missile strikes do not represent a change in US policy toward Syria. The United States will rely on negotiations in Geneva to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr Tillerson says. Russia has failed to deliver on its commitments made in 2013 to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, adding that Moscow has been either complicit or "simply incompetent" on the matter. 

Meanwhile, US Rep Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, says the White House does not intend to conduct additional air strikes on Syria, though it is reserving its options. 

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So that's the news, but it doesn't tell us much about why this strike took place or what it means. It looks like the US struck Syria in a measured, strategic way and it sent a message. But what was the message? And was it really limited to the Syrian regime?

It certainly wasn't a display of US resolve. Every time the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in the past, Washington deferred to inaction, even when it said this would constitute a "red line." Admittedly, that was during Barack Obama's presidency and by many reports, Mr Obama thought he was smarter than the foreign policy establishment and tried to outplay them at every turn. He felt scorned after the poorly-thought-out Libyan intervention in 2011 and didn't want to fall into the trap of listening to CFR and Brooking so easily again. History will be the judge of him.

The new US president hasn't had enough time or headspace to deliver his position on Syria, although the major theme of his presidency already seems to be a continuation of the two prior administrations, with a little alteration. So before this week, it was safe to assume his implicit position on Syria was the same as Mr Obama's, and this proved to be true. 

In this case, Mr Trump decided delivering on the "red line" threat would be a good idea and proportional to the regime's activities. This means the strike should be seen as Mr Trump seizing a perfect opportunity to put his marker down as being different to his predecessor. A military response to chemical weapons use has good optics for his supporters: "Obama wouldn't do what was necessary, but I will."

Was the message about the strength of the US president? Surely his power to simply order the launch of 60 cruise missiles from a pair of loitering destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean at will broadcasts the executive's capabilities? Not really. The president has more power over the use of US forces than over domestic policy, but it's not total. He still has to sign off major operations with the Senate. Of course, Mr Trump will use the military as coins in the popularity slot machine, but any jackpot is beyond his power to control. The US is a martial culture, so it likes seeing strength, but its translation is not up to the Pentagon. That's up to State. So far the two are aligning on this, so aside from the easy critical dig of civilian deaths, both Washington factions are nodding their heads.

Perhaps the message was about the terror of chemical weapons? I don't think anyone disagrees sarin or chlorine in the mouths of children is a chivalrous way to conduct battle. But two things don't quite make sense here. 

One, there is good reason to believe Mr Obama's final decision not to intervene in Syria five years ago can't be blamed on just reticence or cowardice. Reportedly he received a briefing soon after the chemical weapons release by the US intelligence community. The information was delivered with high confidence that during all the capture and recapture of territory over the prior few months, jihadist rebels had secured some chemical weapons. Then, aided by bumbling Turkish intelligence officers, the rebels had used those weapons against a civilian area to make it look like the regime was responsible. 

The motive was obvious. Both the rebels and Turkey wanted the US to get involved. Mr Obama was in a tight situation because he'd promised intervention but now learned he was being goaded. It was only when the Russians stepped in and offered to destroy the regime's chemical weapons stockpile did the US president have his way out. This version of events won't be confirmed for 30 years until the classified vaults open, but it does fit the puzzle of why Mr Obama halted.

(As an aside, Mr Tilerson is correct. Either the Russians are incompetent with their destruction programme or they are devious. Russia certainly would have intelligence officers in position among the Syrian military to know about any strategy to use the weapons. But of course, this depends on whether the regime actually dropped the weapons or whether it was another bluff. The US says it knows which aircraft were used to release the weapons, but that's what it said after the last incident as well. The fog of war is a damn pain.)

Two, why are chemical weapons worse than conventional weapons? I mean, when you think about it, having a limb blown off or shrapnel pepper the face would be just as terrible and life-changing as chlorine burns in the throat. And an explosion is just as deadly as chemical suffocation. There's actually no reason to think the US really cares about chemical weapons usage, in itself. But it does tick a few juicy boxes. 

After all, when the US says a regime is morally evil and should be removed (like Bashar al-Assad's), and it's not obvious why that regime is worse than any other, it has to be made clear to the audience (the "international community"). And what better way to do that than to arbitrarily choose chemical weapons as the mark of horror? Anyone willing to use them axiomatically is a bad actor and must be stopped.

But I want to point out how this diverts attention from the use conventional weapons. Because, after all, if conventional weapons aren't as bad as chemical, then the US can use TNT with impunity and still remain a moral actor. Furthermore, if chemical weapons are the worst weapon in combat, then no one will remember that the US is still the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in battle. Conveniently, the only weapon type the US hasn't used in combat is chemical.

(It also pays to remember that chemical weapons are the least efficient type of weapon available. They require exquisite environmental conditions to operate. The slightest gust of wind will push the toxic cloud from the intended target area, perhaps even back onto one's own troop positions. The explosion of the artillery shell or missile might burn the compound and change the chemical signature, rendering it inert. Sarin, for instance, is extremely vulnerable to heat. And when used outdoors, the quantity of chemicals needed to saturate an area would be so great that the mere impact of the shells would probably do more damage than the chemicals they release.)

So what is the message? 

I think this should be attached to Mr Trump's phone call to Taiwan after his inauguration. The new president is announcing to a belligerent world that he is willing and able to do things differently. He can do things others can't, he sees the world's rules in a strange way, which specifically means he understands there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit. 

It shows how Mr Trump is not unpredictable at all. The president has consistently said the US needs to be tougher on Syria. Mr Trump didn't wake up the morning of the strikes and change his mind. He told us his intentions clearly, months ago. So look at this from the eyes of the Chinese president, who just so happens to be meeting Mr Trump in Florida today. The Chinese have seen the same pattern: what Mr Trump says he is going to do, will be attempted, so you better get in front of him to talk. 

That's the message on the tips of 59 cruise missiles. When Mr Trump says he is going to act, you can double down and split the tens. I think a lot of people around the world will appreciate this predictability, even Washington's adversaries. The danger of Mr Obama wasn't his ineptitude, arrogance or reticence. It was his unpredictability. The kind of unpredictability that makes the world a more chaotic place than it needs to be. 

When the US was attacked on 9/11 its adversaries drew a collective breath. They had no idea what the US would do in revenge. Afghanistan was an obvious target, but when Iraq was invaded, Iran and Libya suddenly got very quiet. Libya actually surrendered its WMD programme to appease an angry Washington, and that strategy worked until 2011. Meanwhile, Iran froze all its operations in the region because it was convinced the US was going to roll its battle tanks up the Alborz and Zagros mountains.

In the real world, goodwill doesn't maintain order nearly as well as predictability. Any parent knows this. Mr Trump just showed the world it can relax. So long as you listen to his words, you'll know what's coming. Would Hillary Clinton have sent the missiles? Probably. The point is the US said it would act and it followed through. Geopolitics often boils down to simply this: acting within the natural limits. That's not just geography, it's human nature, too. Order arises only from predictability. That's a good message.

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Addendum:  


At this level, it's hard to know why some missiles failed. According to reports, between 60 and 70 missiles were launched but only 59* found their targets. Syria has a robust air defence network, which is why the US hasn't intervened in the country on a large scale, even though it wanted too. (For comparison, Libya had only a handful of operational SAM sites in 2011, whereas Syria's network is made up of dozens of redundant static systems, and an unknown amount of mobile vehicles.) In such a threat environment, and with no SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences), the correct tactic is to launch with an overwhelming number of projectiles to saturate the targeting computers of the network. The SAMs will still launch, but with too many incoming targets it won't be able to hit them all. It's a crude way of pushing munitions through a SAM network, but it's standard US airstrike doctrine.

Of course, the Russians are known to have S-300 and S-400 SAM systems in at least two locations in Syria. Their radar fans sweep in most of the Syrian coastline and about half the interior country or more. I imagine after the US warned the Kremlin of its airstrike, the operators turned those systems on. Why? Because it supplies the Russians with a unique opportunity to test their new systems against modern US unmanned aerial vehicles (cruise missiles). The Russians had a bit of a grey area in their system's intercept capabilities, in that they don't know for sure they work against modern US munitions. But it also would have given the US a similar opportunity. They would have positioned electronic intelligence (ELINT) platforms to listen to the Russian systems and suck up valuable intelligence about how the S-400 talks to other missiles and its base TELs (transporter erector/launchers). 


This is a major reason why it probably wasn't a good idea to deploy F-22 Raptor aircraft to Iraq last year. The Russians have their own ELINT platforms and have likely been learning a lot about how the fifth-generation strike aircraft talk and hide while in the air. 

The costs of the above would have been known to both parties, and because the US chose to conduct the mission, it's likely the benefit outweighed the intelligence it just handed to the Russians. On the other hand, perhaps the US was also practising with its own jamming technology against the new Russian SAM systems and wanted the Russians to turn their systems on so it could pinpoint them. The USS George H. W. Bush is conducting supporting operations in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations (AOR) and was last seen on April 5 tucked up high near Basra at the top of the Persian Gulf. So the US has plenty of  EA-18G Growlers at its disposal for just this role. It's not known how many other electronic warfare air platforms the US has in Iraq or other countries in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

*BBC reports only 23 missiles of 59 launched hit targets

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