The US missile strike on Syria’s Sharyat air base provides a good opportunity to compare the sharply different approaches the US and the Russia have to the use of force.
The Russians use force sparingly as an instrument of state policy to advance what they see as their national interests. Every Russian military endeavour since the end of the Second Word War has been judged and carried out to further some concrete objective of the Russian state.
The Russian intervention in Syria is a case in point. The Russians intervened in Syria legally – upon the invitation of the legitimate government – and with a clear objective: to preserve the Syrian state and to defeat the various Jihadi terrorist groups operating in Syria. It is precisely because the Russian intervention in Syria is carefully judged and carried out to further a specific objective that it has up to now been so successful.
By contrast the US all too often seems to undertake military action for frivolous reasons, without thinking through its implications, and without any clear objective other than a desire to look ‘strong’ and ‘tough’. This happens all the time and the missile strike on Sharyat air base is simply a case in point.
That this so is shown by the inability of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster in their joint news conference after the missile strike to come up with any coherent explanation of what it was supposed to achieve. Essentially they confirmed it was no more than a reprisal raid for the alleged Syrian chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheikhoun, even though no international investigation has established Syria’s guilt, and even though the US was not itself a target of that attack.
In trying to explain the reasons for the raid the best Tillerson could come up with was this
I think the other thing that’s important to recognize — that as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response — no response from the international community — that he, in effect, is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which then may be adopted by others. So it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms.
I think it’s also important to recognize, as I think everyone does, the chaotic circumstances that exist on the ground in Syria, with the presence of a battle underway to defeat ISIS, the presence of al Qaeda elements inside of Syria, and a civil war that is underway. So, clearly, one of the existential threats we see on the ground in Syria is if there are weapons of this nature available in Syria, the ability to secure those weapons and not have them fall into the hands of those who would bring those weapons to our shores to harm American citizens.
So there are a number of elements that, in our view, called for this action and which we feel was appropriate. We feel the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack
When Tillerson was challenged directly to explain the reasoning more clearly, the result was this chaotic exchange
Q Can I ask H.R. — sorry — both the Secretary and H.R. McMaster — what is the overriding message here? Is it that — this is not clearly a declaration of war, but is it that for President Trump and this administration the credible threat of military force is back on the table? Was this articulated or explained in any way to President Xi prior to the President’s remarks? And do you see this as in any way sending a message more broadly on your policy towards North Korea that the President is willing to take decisive action? If both of you would weigh in.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think as you just stated, this clearly indicates the President is willing to take decisive action when called for. And I think in this particular case, the use of prohibited chemical weapons, which violates a number of international norms and violates existing agreements, called for this type of a response, which is a kinetic military response.
I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There’s been no change in that status. But I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line, and cross the line on violating commitments they have made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways. I think it is clear that President Trump has made that statement to the world tonight.
Deciphering this muddled language, the attack – which changes nothing in the overall balance of the fighting in Syria, with even the Western media now admitting that the Syrian air force is not only continuing to operate from Sharyat air base but is continuing to bomb Khan Sheikhoun – is being justified as nothing more than a ‘signal’ or ‘gesture’ to President Assad of President Trump’s ‘resolve’ and ‘toughness’ and of his ‘determination’ to stop the Syrians using chemical weapons. This before any formal investigation has even established that the Syrians have in fact used chemical weapons.
Taking military action to send out a ‘signal’ is just about the worst possible reason to take military action. Essentially it amounts to taking military action simply as a gesture and because one can.
If the US wanted to send a ‘signal’ to Syria to prevent it using chemical weapons then the first thing it should have done was agree at the UN Security Council a proper international investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun incident to find out whether Syrian really has been using chemical weapons. If such an investigation – conducted properly and impartially and without pressure – were to conclude that the Syrian military did indeed use chemical weapons during the Khan Sheikhoun attack, then the Russians – who have no interest in having Syria use chemical weapons – would have exercised their influence on Damascus to ensure this never happened again.
Needless to say a warning from Moscow to Damascus would have achieved precisely what is supposed to have been the purpose of the US missile strike – to stop Syria using chemical weapons – and no one need have been killed to achieve it.
Instead by launching a missile strike the US has enraged the Russians and has ensured that instead of warning Damascus they will now take further action to support Syria. That will of course make the conflict in Syria even more dangerous and more intractable. It is difficult to see how that can possible serve any conceivable US interest.
This is what happens when military action is taken in such a frivolous and ill thought out way and with no clearly defined objective. However it is how the US has long since been accustomed to behave, even though this is the primary reason why its various military interventions almost invariably end in failure.