War Stories

The Missiles May Be “Smart,” but the President’s Plan Is Not

Before he risks an escalation in Syria and a conflict with Russia, Trump needs to figure out what he’s actually trying to accomplish.

US President Donald Trump, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images, Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images, and Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP/Getty Images.

As President Trump prepares to order a missile attack on Syria, it’s worth asking ahead of time just what he intends to accomplish—what goals are feasible, at what levels of risk.

The attack itself is nearly a fait accompli. Wednesday morning, in response to a warning from a Russian official that Russia would shoot down any U.S. missiles fired at Syria, Trump tweeted, “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

Quite apart from the poor grammar and the juvenile giddiness about high-tech weapons and military force (an attitude that American military officers almost certainly find disturbing), it’s hard to imagine that Trump would put so much on the line, then pull back and thus look “weak.” It’s also a bit nerve-racking to wonder what Putin—no less obsessed with projecting a strongman image—might do as a follow-up if his air-defense weapons fail to blunt Trump’s attack.

In other words, the next few days could unleash a spiraling escalation of tension, not just among the myriad combatants in and around Syria but also between the United States and Russia.

This new round of violence was sparked by charges—which Russian and Syrian officials have unconvincingly denied—that Syrian helicopters attacked civilians with chemical weapons. One year ago, after a similar attack, Trump, then just a few months in office, ordered U.S. warships in the Mediterranean to fire 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. The strike had no effect; the next day, Syrian planes attacked more civilians (albeit with conventional weapons) after taking off from the very same air base. Craters on runways can be filled pretty quickly.

Almost certainly then, this next attack will be bigger—or at least planned in such a way to be more consequential. What kind of attack might this be?

The first question that the generals are probably posing to Trump is what consequences he would like to see. Presumably, the main desire is simply to punish Assad for killing civilians with chemical weapons, in violation of international law and the most basic standards of decency.

One could ask why Trump is so agitated when dozens are killed by Assad’s poison gas yet so blasé when tens of thousands are killed by the Syrian regime’s bullets and bombs. But chemical weapons do cross a line; they’ve been outlawed for nearly a century, and it would be horrible if their use were suddenly normalized. Reports that Trump is recruiting France, Britain, other EU countries, and Saudi Arabia to join in on the attack—or in somehow holding Assad accountable—are encouraging, for political and humanitarian reasons.

But, again, what kind of attack is appropriate? One year ago, 59 cruise missiles had little effect on Assad’s behavior or on the support from his allies, principally Russia and Iran. It’s doubtful that 69 or 89 or 100 cruise missiles would have more potency.

There’s another problem with simply dropping bombs for their own sake. Most of Syria’s air bases and other military facilities now host Russian planes, combat vehicles, and personnel. Destroying Russian assets or killing Russian soldiers would have two dreadful effects. First, it would put the United States in direct military conflict with Russia, even though it’s not clear that Russians were complicit in Assad’s use of chemical weapons, except to help cover it up afterward. Second, it would further embroil the U.S. military in Syria, just days after Trump said he wanted to pull the U.S. military out of the country once they finished destroying the last remnants of ISIS, leaving other countries to clean up the rest of the mess.

Shortly before Trump fired 59 cruise missiles at a single air base one year ago, Russian officers were alerted so they could evacuate their planes and personnel. It’s likely that the Russians also alerted the Syrians, which may be why the attack had so little effect.

In other words, the Pentagon’s war planners are probably trying to develop options that inflict enough damage to stun Assad into altering his behavior—but not enough damage to draw us into a deeper and wider war. That’s a tight wire to walk.

Another approach to this sort of pressure campaign might be to damage or destroy some asset that Assad or his allies dearly value. Presumably, U.S., European, Israeli, and Sunni Arab intelligence agencies have been scanning intercepts and interrogating sources for just such a magic ring. There’s a long history of wartime spies and commanders searching for these rings. Rarely does such a thing exist; still more rarely is it found. If they think they’ve found one here, and if it’s a target of the attack, we’ll know in fairly short order.

One caution, which the generals have no doubt conveyed to Trump, is that airstrikes alone rarely accomplish much—certainly not one-off strikes against some specific, limited set of targets. Airstrikes are most effective when they’re followed up by assaults on the ground. Trump has made clear, with good reason, that he’s not ramping up troop levels for such assaults. Nor are the leaders of Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia keen to send in troops, regardless of how keen they might be to support missile strikes or even launch a few rounds themselves.

Trump blames the current situation on President Obama’s failure to follow through on his own threats to bomb Syria if Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons against his own people. According to a former official who saw the attack plan, which Obama nearly carried out, it would have been a fairly elaborate strike—destroying all of Syria’s airplanes and disabling, at least for a while, Assad’s military command control systems. A military officer who considered, and supported, the attack plan told his colleagues, “Maybe it’s a good message to say you can’t have an air force if you use chemical weapons.” At least one official thought there was a small chance that the strike could galvanize CIA-backed rebels in southern Syria to topple Assad’s regime. (Others disagreed.)

Obama ultimately backpedaled for two reasons. First, he thought, for political and legal reasons, that he couldn’t and shouldn’t do this alone—and he would have had to do that, after the British Parliament voted not to get involved and after the U.S. Congress declined to grant him the authority. Second, he thought that Russia and Iran, not wanting to lose their most valued ally and foothold in the region, would come to Assad’s rescue, repairing the damage, replacing the planes, and possibly escalating the conflict. At that point, Obama figured, he would have to back down or raise the stakes—i.e., to admit defeat or throw in tens of thousands of troops, neither of which he wanted to do.

Whatever the merits of Obama’s inaction, the same option is not open to Trump. He can’t launch an all-out attack on Syria’s air force without also attacking Russia, and he can’t do that without risking a very dangerous new war.

Finally, there is the politico-diplomatic question: To the extent the attack gives the U.S. and its allies any leverage, will they follow it up with pressure—or diplomatic overtures of any sort—to wind down the tension, end the war, move toward a political settlement? Trump did not do any of that—as far as we know, it wasn’t even part of the conversation—after his missile strike one year ago. If he fails to do so again this time, it will again be a bit of theatrics: sound and fury, signifying nothing.