After days of speculation, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to offer a warning, or perhaps a threat, to Russian and Syrian forces: “missiles are coming.”
Trump’s message on social media comes after an alleged chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians in the rebel controlled town of Douma on April 7th. More than 80 people have been reported dead, with hundreds more seeking medical treatment after exposure to a gas spread via barrels dropped from Syrian military helicopters. In the intervening days between the attack and Trump’s announcement, Russia preemptively argued that they would deem an attack on Syrian troops an attack on themselves, saying that they would take military action to intervene. President Trump seemed to be calling their bluff.
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” Trump wrote. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Some have questioned the logic of the president’s tweet, seeing it as offering advanced warning to Syrian and Russian forces that a similar strike to the one Trump ordered last April may soon be on its way. That attack, also prompted by the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians carried about by Bashar al Assad’s forces, saw 59 Tomahawk missiles launched by nearby Arleigh Burke class destroyers that temporarily rendered the airbase that launched the chemical attack non-functional.
Though many saw this strike as a powerful message to Assad and Putin, in truth, it was really more of a symbolic gesture. The strike was carried out in a manner so as to intentionally limit potential casualties and Russian forces were given plenty of forewarning about the strike via a deconfliction line utilized to reduce the chances of conflict between Russian and American forces operating in Syria. Although it hasn’t been confirmed that Russia relayed that information to the local Syrian forces, watching the Russians pack up their gear and hightail it out of the area may have been plenty warning enough. Now, many assume Trump’s tweet, while seemingly bold and aggressive, may have actually been a similar sort of olive branch.
When news broke of Trump’s ordered ballistic missile strike in Syria, many worried that the decision could lead to direct conflict with Russia or an expanded war in Syria aimed at removing Assad from power… but instead, there was relative quiet. In fact, for some months, the disparate groups backed by various external nations all vying for power in Syria even set much of their conflict aside to focus on ousting ISIS from the region — but with ISIS no longer a formidable threat in Syria, tensions are once again ratcheting up and Trump may now be hoping for a repeat of last April’s strike — one that’s heavy in message but light in geopolitical fallout. This sort of limited “punitive strike” could prevent war, while still sending a clear message from the international community.
However, a straight reboot to last year’s strike may not be possible this time around. Russia has made a public spectacle of their support for Assad, particularly in this instance. If they fail to respond to an American military strike, it would damage their credibility among allies like Syria as well among potential future allies with strained relations with the West like North Korea. In order to maintain credibility, Russia would have to act… the question is, what constitutes action?
It’s possible that Russia will simply attempt to intercept inbound Tomahawks using their S-300 missile defense platforms, offering them an opportunity to put their ballistic missile intercepting technology on display for the world. There are, however, significant risks associated with that for Russia as well, as a poor performance would again damage their credibility, this time as a weapons developer hoping to sell such systems on the global market.
A broader attack could do more to hamper Syria’s ability to produce and use chemical weapons, however, such a strike also increases the chances that the attack would be met with more than defensive measures and the U.S. could find itself embroiled in a much larger conflict than is currently the case. It would still be possible to conduct such a large attack and prevent war with Russia, for instance, if the United States and international partners quickly fielded a large enough intervention force to make it unsustainable for Russia to intervene directly on Assad’s behalf. That, however, would amount to entering into another full-fledged invasion in a nation Trump reportedly had hoped to pull U.S. troops out of entirely only weeks ago.
For the moment, it would seem that all the options are on the table, and as the president interacts with international partners and American lawmakers to establish a strategy, one can bet a bevy of strategists are already hard at work around Assad and Putin’s tables as well — all asking the question, how does one fight without starting a war.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy