21 April 2017

Thoughts on Syrian Strike

If you haven't seen that video yet, the stare she gives the Russian ambassador makes it must see viewing. I was impressed.

When President Obama gave Syria a red line on chemical weapons back in 2013, and Assad crossed that red line, you may remember I was quite uncomfortable with how everything had gone down. I was uncomfortable with the President giving the red line, and I was uncomfortable with the idea the US would have to attack Syria. President Obama took a lot of criticism for addressing that incident in 2013 with diplomacy, but the United States ultimately removed a considerable amount of chemical weapons from Syria via MV Cape Ray and over time I came to appreciate the decision by President Obama. Until this past week, there had been no clear evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria against civilians, including for the entire remainder of the Obama administration. In my mind, what President Obama did at the time was the right thing.

But when news broke about chemical weapons use in Syria this week, particularly in the context of what is happening on the Korean peninsula, in my mind President Trump had a very serious choice to make. He either attacked Syria for breaking their agreement with President Obama, or the United States retreated from the role as the leader of the global security construct the world has enjoyed since the end of the cold war.

Assad left Trump no choice, and actually gave the Trump administration exactly what they needed in many ways. The strike by the United States against Syria on Thursday checks multiple strategic boxes that needed to be checked given the checkered beginning of this Presidential administration. In one stroke, President Trump was able to: 

Support a policy championed by President Obama with a limited use of military force thereby proving that domestic political disagreements do not represent a weakness in US foreign policy. 

Send a clear signal of US resolve to the dictators globally like Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong un that the US is not to be tested. 

Reassert US influence in a region of the world dominated by Russia at this point and time. 
Send a clear message to world powers like China, at a time Trump is meeting with Xi Jinping, that the US led by President Trump will use military force when forced to. 

These are not small things. President Trump's action reinforces the security framework rule sets led by the United States that many, including myself, have been concerned that President Trump might not be willing to stand up for under his administration. I'm not really sure what actual tactical military impact 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles may or may not have had hitting some random targets in Syria, and my gut tells me the tactical impact is probably very little.

But sending 60 Tomahawks into Syria isn't about tactical effects, the way to measure this military action will be to observe strategic effects. I'm sure in the near future cable TV will find some political science mouth breather ready to do battle damage tactical assessments on use of Tomahawks as if the military action taken Thursday has something in common with trying to win some battle against Syria. Firing Tomahawks into Syria isn't about winning a battle though, it's about shaping the conduct of a war, which is a continuation of the policy set forth by President Obama specific to chemical weapons and a necessary escalation in response to Assad for challenging the agreement Syria made with the last administration.

Only time will tell if the strategic communication sent on Thursday was sufficient, or whether a new challenge to President Trump is forthcoming to test the US resolve on this issue.

As this event relates to naval strategic theory, I will be observing this event as an early test of the Trump administrations naval focused offshore balancing strategic theory. The ability to send an effective strategic communication with the execution of a tactical missile strike was a staple of both the Reagan and Clinton administrations, but both of those President's enjoyed a large US Navy capable of acting globally in massive force in response to any incident. Today's US Navy is significantly smaller than the Navy of those two Presidents, and while an Arleigh Burke class destroyer can send the initial volley of cruise missiles to send a strategic message, I am not as confident regarding how things might unfold if there was blow back from this type of military action.

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