As the Trump administration deliberates military action to respond to apparent nerve gas attacks in Syria, debate is surging over the merits of punitive strikes. Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, warns that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to be deterred from future attacks by anything less than force that rattles his regime. But a response that’s too aggressive, she says, could provoke escalation between the United States and Russia. Given the stakes, it is essential for Washington to spell out its strategy for Syria and reinforce the military’s role in vanquishing the self-proclaimed Islamic State, says Yacoubian, a contributor to a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum study on the Obama administration’s decision-making on Syria.
With President Trump signaling military action, what options are likely on the table?
More likely than not, these attacks will be long-distance missile attacks, either from ships or possibly from airplanes not in Syrian airspace. It’s both building some sort of coalition, and also refining target lists, that has taken up time. The questions will be: Who undertakes the attacks? Is it the U.S. by itself, or with allies? There’s been a lot of talk about the French and the British taking part, and there’s also mention of Arab allies.
Another big question is, what would the targets be? The issue is a sense that whatever is targeted, the attacks would need to be more intense than what took place almost exactly a year ago, after the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province.
Tomahawk missile strikes on Shayrat Airfield—where the planes took off that dropped the sarin gas in this town in Idlib—did not serve as a sufficient deterrent to the regime. There have been a number of chlorine gas attacks since that attack took place. This one seems to have been particularly potent; there’s conjecture that perhaps it was sarin.
The question before the president, his advisors, and the U.S. military is: What is the sweet spot for the use of force significant to serve as a real deterrent and yet not so big that we end up in an uncontrollable cycle of escalation?
Targeting civilians—both by chemical weapons and more conventional means—has been part of Assad’s strategy all along. Could such measures actually change his calculations?
For Assad the stakes are nothing less than existential, and that in many ways informs his behavior. Douma is the last rebel-held town in the rebel-held enclave [of eastern Ghouta,] a suburb of Damascus, so from the regime’s perspective, it was a particularly threatening area. They have swept out nearly all of the rebels from this area. In fact, the chemical weapons attack seems to have done the trick; the last group of rebels, from Jaish al-Islam, agreed to evacuate.
Incremental pressure is not likely to bring about a shift in behavior, because for Assad, it’s win or die. To shift his calculus, a hit would have to be fairly significant, so that he feels his regime is somehow threatened. Yet that’s precisely the direction we don’t want to go in, because the last thing we want to see is the regime collapse and all-out chaos break out.
Is there a way to ply Iran and Russia from Assad, so that they bring some pressure to bear on him?
That is the play to be made. Their calculus—certainly Russia’s, and maybe to a lesser extent Iran’s—is somewhat different than Assad’s. For Russia, the stakes aren’t necessarily existential. We’re already seeing signals by the Russians, on the one hand, to threaten retaliation, but also that they’re concerned about what these strikes might yield. Reporting suggests that all of Russia’s naval assets have left the port of Tartus.
In Aleppo, for example, Russia had a high tolerance for atrocities against civilians. Would this moment be any different?
In Aleppo they weren’t faced with impending U.S. missile strikes. They are certainly not moved by naming and shaming. They seem to show absolutely no empathy, and international criticism has done nothing in terms of Russia’s support for the Assad regime. The difference is to what extent the U.S. missile strikes come into play, and how threatening they are to Russia’s position in Syria.
Russia has obstructed various UN Security Council resolutions on humanitarianism in Syria. What would you make of military action without the council’s blessing to enforce the norm against chemical weapons?
In Syria, international norms have been transgressed in so many different ways. It has shown the ineffectiveness of international institutions like the UN Security Council to play a role in de-escalating conflict.
While it’s clear there will be no UN Security Council resolution that authorizes strikes, the hope is that [strikes] would shift the calculus of Russia, and the ways in which conflict is being played out, so that it moves from the realm of the military to the realm of the diplomatic. But that’s a long shot.
There’s been much talk recently of the two thousand U.S. troops in eastern Syria in territory that’s been liberated from the Islamic State. Do they factor into what might be a diplomatic or political approach to the war?
For the U.S. military, [the deployment has been] guided by facilitating a broader political settlement in Syria. But that seems a long way off—certainly a settlement that includes Assad stepping aside—so the U.S. presence in eastern Syria has a more immediate goal, stabilizing areas that have been liberated from ISIS. In that sense, it is an important piece of U.S. strategy, such as it exists in Syria.
The bigger question is: What is the broader Syria strategy in which any such strikes take place? It’s the “then what?” question: Where are we headed in Syria? What are our goals? What’s the purpose of these strikes? If the purpose is to deter the regime from committing further atrocities, or to deter the further use of chemical weapons, that needs to be clearly stated. But beyond deterrence of that kind of behavior, what are the longer-term goals and strategy of the United States in Syria? I don’t think that’s been articulated, and it’s going to be essential that any military action sits squarely in a well-conceived and well-resourced strategy.
If you had the ear of the president, what would you advise?
This conflict is entering its eighth year. U.S. priorities in Syria, certainly since 2014, have been defined by the counter-ISIS mission. That mission has yet to be fully realized; there are still pockets of ISIS in eastern Syria, and there is still a lot of the stabilization mission that needs to go forward. I would recommend that that piece of our policy continue, and we should look to any sort of military strikes as a way of leveraging U.S. influence to bring together all the key parties and figure out how to de-escalate and begin to bring this horrific conflict to an end.
There are no easy answers. De-escalation, political settlement, and bringing the conflict to a close has bedeviled U.S. policy for years. The counter-ISIS piece is much more clearly defined; there are clear steps that can be taken—maintaining the troop presence, unfreezing funding for stabilization operations, and working to de-escalate tensions between the Kurds and Turkey, another brewing conflict.
All this is occurring amid a transition in the administration’s national security team, with John Bolton coming on as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo nominated to be secretary of state. Could this augur a shift in Syria policy?
It’s too soon to tell, but we could see a greater emphasis on Iran, and a focus on using force in Syria to counter Iran. There’s no congressional authorization for troops on the ground, and we don’t know what the targets of the impending strikes will be. Will Iranian targets be part of that package? Will Iranians be killed? This is in the realm of speculation, but it raises the question of whether some of the president’s advisors see the need to undertake strikes as an opportunity to send a signal to Iran.
This interview has been edited and condensed.