Small Wars Journal

Syria: Chemical Attacks and U.S. Response

Syria: Chemical Attacks and U.S. Response

Hal Kempfer

On April 7th, the Syrians again used chemical weapons against their people, with dozens killed, potentially 70 or more.  Many were innocent children, yet again.  Israel has put down a marker, by striking first at a Syrian airfield, now the United States must act.   

In the past, both the Obama administration and Trump administration have stated this is unacceptable.  Last year, President Trump hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to the previous chemical attack by the Syrian government against their people.  Yet, here we are again, another attack, another series of graphic images of the victims, Syrian government denials and false counteraccusations that the rebels did it instead, the Russians obviously complicit and knowledgeable, and no foreseeable change in behavior that would forestall a repeat. 

Whatever we do in Syria has to gauged on several levels.  We don’t want to do something that would help ISIS nor help Al Qaeda affiliates from gaining ground or advantage.  The Russians are deeply embedded with the Syrians, so whatever we do militarily will likely cost Russian lives.

So, what do we do?  Obviously, whatever we do must be decisive, and it must cost Syria critical capability to conduct another similar strike.  It must be bold, we are playing to world stage where or allies have become increasingly concerned about U.S. resolve and intent in global affairs.  There is a risk, Syria has a substantial anti-aircraft missile defense system, as the Israelis just learned when they recently conducted air strikes there. 

However, just throwing more Tomahawk missiles isn’t going to change the situation.  It may send a message, but that message is one that both Assad and Putin may find amusing at best. 

No, what needs to happen is something long overdue.   What is needed is a strike that ends Assad’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.  That means a devastating strike on Syrian aircraft, artillery and rockets, one that leaves the government of Assad without the means of launching another chemical attack.  That implies far more than a single strike or night of strikes, but perhaps a concerted missile and air campaign lasting a few days.  It risks Russian intervention trying to defend Syrian forces against our strikes, but the only other option is to allow more chemical attacks to continue unabated. 

On the other side of the debate, it would alleviate pressure on the Free Syrian forces that have been losing ground to Assad’s Army at a regular clip.  Additionally, it would send a message to all of Assad’s forces that they cannot act with impunity, and the consequences for them can be catastrophic.

There is always a desire to go after “command and control” or C2, but this would require a decapitation strike to make an appreciable difference, and those are very hard to do.  A failed attempt has its own dynamic. Our history of being able to eliminate foreign leaders through missile and air strikes hasn’t been very successful, and often counterproductive.  From a target intelligence standpoint, it is usually easier to take out artillery, aircraft and missile launchers than to take out a foreign leader.

This is what President Trump must decide upon.  Right now, there is probably vigorous debate in the Joint Planning Group within the Pentagon on what we can do and how, but the important thing they will need is the Commander in Chief’s intent.  With that said, if the President really wants to end chemical weapons being used in Syria, then ending those weapons being used should be the objective.