The Signs, Options and Risks of a U.S. Strike on Syria

9 MINS READApr 10, 2018 | 23:58 GMT
A photograph taken during a March 23, 2018, bombardment in the rebel-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta outside Damascus.

A photograph taken during a March 23, 2018, bombardment in the rebel-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta outside Damascus.

  • The United States is building a military coalition to deter Syria's use of chemical weapons.
  • This coalition may conduct a broader operation with a bigger target list than the U.S. strikes conducted in April 2017, but it would not be intended to change the civil war's frontlines.
  • Like 2017's strikes, any potential operation will try to avoid Russian casualties and mitigate risk of further political escalation for the coalition.

The United States is building a coalition against Syria to respond to an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 7 against civilians and rebel forces in Douma, near Damascus. The primary objective of an operation against Syria will be to deter the further use of chemical weapons, something that a punitive missile strike launched last April by the United States did only temporarily.

This time around, however, a U.S.-led strike against Syria likely would be wider in scope, aiming not only to deter Damascus, but also to impair the Syrian government's ability to carry out chemical weapons attacks. But even with the support of a coalition, and even with a bigger operational scope, the same factors that constrained the United States in April 2017 would also constrain a military operation this time.

Forecast Update

In our 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that, "Having failed to translate peace talks into an exit from the protracted civil war,  Moscow will settle for a conflict frozen in place instead. De-escalation zones will offer a means to that end. But Syrian President Bashar al Assad and foreign patron Iran won't be willing to recognize these areas, throwing a wrench into Russia's plans." It is clear that even though Russia and other powers have sought to slow down the civil conflict in Syria through implementing de-escalation zones, the Syrian government is intent on fighting rebels in areas like Douma, in eastern Ghouta. The apparent use of chemical weapons as part of those anti-rebel operations is driving a U.S. desire to strike Syrian government assets to deter future chemical weapons attacks.

There are, however, some important differences between last year and now. Last April, the United States acted alone when it launched cruise missiles at Syria's Shayrat air base, which was alleged to be the starting point for a sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. This time, a wider operation could involve multiple strikes across several days and would necessitate significantly more forces, including likely coalition members France and the United Kingdom. It is possible Saudi Arabia, Qatar and/or the United Arab Emirates could be involved in a hosting and facilitation capacity. More remotely, one or any of these states might involve themselves militarily. The Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visited the White House on April 10. The inclusion within a coalition of Qatar and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council has a chance of creating limited military cooperation between the council's feuding states.

The operation could expand relative to the Shayrat airstrike to focus on degrading the Syrian government's capability to deliver chemical weapons. French President Emmanuel Macron gave greater weight to the possibility of a wider operation when he said on April 10 that France would target Syria's chemical facilities in a strike. The new round of strikes might include Dumeir, Marj Ruhayyil and Mezzeh air bases around Damascus, which have been instrumental to the government's offensive in eastern Ghouta. They also may include a wider range of other locations associated with Syria's chemical weapons program.

Because a coalition strike would include a widened target set, Stratfor is looking closely for the additional deployment of U.S. and allied forces to the Middle East. Regionally, the largest bases for potential use in an operation against Syria are the U.S. base at al-Udeid in Qatar and British military bases in Cyprus; increased military activity at these locations may indicate the scope of an impending attack.

A wider target set could necessitate basing and securing access for attack routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, which would require negotiations to acquire their consent. While the United States is already in conversation with Iraq on the issue of a potential strike, Baghdad's close ties with Iran might force it to deny the United States and its partners a flight path through Iraq. Iraq's need to balance its interests between its ties to Iran and to the United States was clear after the 2017 Khan Shaykhun attack, when Iraq's government condemned the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians but questioned whether Damascus was culpable.

A wider strike also would likely require the involvement of more assets, such as aircraft carriers from the United States. The USS Harry S. Truman and its support ships are scheduled to leave Norfolk, Virginia, for the Mediterranean and Middle East on April 11, while the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its fleet may redeploy from the Pacific. It will take the USS Truman a week to arrive in the Mediterranean.

The broader the campaign against Syria the greater the risk to Russian forces in the country. The political fallout of Russian deaths from U.S.-led strikes will depend on if the Russians killed are military members or private military contractors. Private military contractors already have been killed by direct U.S. action in Syria with minimal fallout, leaving open the question of how Russia would react if regulars were to be killed in a U.S.-led campaign. The United States may attempt to mitigate this risk, as it did in April 2017, by warning Russia of impending strikes. The Russian presence in Syria — which is mostly concentrated in Tartous, Latakia and Damascus — also limits U.S. options to a defined set of targets. A more holistic campaign would increase the risk of collision with Russian forces. In contrast, striking Iranian forces in Syria has fewer implications for the United States. This was most recently evinced when Israel struck the T4 air base in Syria on April 8, killing several Iranians, without immediate retaliation from Iran.

Meanwhile, in the diplomatic realm, the United States has called for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate this weekend's attack. The organization has already said it will send investigators to Douma (Russia and Syria are cooperating), but as was clear in 2017, the launch of an investigation will not necessarily delay military action. The longer any potential operation goes on, as well, the more likely that political constraints, such as the U.S. War Powers Act, come into play.

Here is what Stratfor wrote in April 2017 ahead of the U.S. cruise missile strike on the Shayrat air base. It remains applicable today:

Limited Punitive Strikes

A limited punitive strike on government targets is the least risky option and the one requiring the fewest resources. This option would be meant to demonstrate U.S. credibility and to deter further loyalist use of chemical weapons by striking a select number of Syrian government targets, including command and control facilities and other high-value and symbolic targets. Punitive strikes can come in varying levels of intensity, duration, and scope, but they are essentially designed to send a message rather than to remove the Syrian government's ability to use chemical weapons.

Target Set

In this scenario, there are more possible targets than the United States would be interested in attacking. Command and control facilities would likely be the priority, driving home the message that the Syrian government leadership, particularly the military leadership, would pay for the decision to use chemical weapons. However, Syrian President Bashar al Assad himself would probably not be targeted because a strike on the upper leadership levels could quickly draw the United States into a full conflict, which it would want to avoid under this scenario. Specific facilities that may be targeted are the airport from where the Syrian aircraft carried out the chemical weapons attack and the specific headquarters of the commander who launched the operation.

Degrade the Government's Chemical Weapons Delivery Capability

Should the United States decide to take the mission a step further, it could also attempt to degrade Damascus' ability to use chemical weapons — not just discourage their use. The command, control and communication facilities could still be targeted, but the operation would also need to strike at a much wider network of targets and potentially even their associated defenses.

Target Set

The mission would focus on the three main ways Damascus can deliver its chemical weapons: the air force, the ballistic missile force and the artillery force.

Although several government airfields have been neutralized or captured by the rebels, several others are still operational. There are at last six major Syrian airfields that are linked to the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. To neutralize an airfield, the United States can crater the airfield, strike parked aircraft, destroy fuel and ammunition stores and disable ground control, radar and maintenance facilities.

Beyond the Syrian Air Force, other loyalist forces also possess large numbers of artillery and ballistic missiles that can be used to launch chemical weapons attacks. The United States however is highly unlikely to comprehensively go beyond air force targets since that would effectively commit the United States to a direct and full-scale war against the al Assad government, an option that is in all likelihood completely of the table at this point.

The Risk Factor

While the ranges of options available to the United States for a military response in Syria vary in risk, none of them are risk-free. The dangers are many and long-term, ranging from loss of material and personnel to the triggering of an active conflict with Russia. Even assuming that a strike was carried out in a seamless fashion with little to no collateral damage, there would undoubtedly be consequences for U.S. operations in Syria. For one thing, the likelihood that the Syrian loyalists would seek to interfere with U.S. flight operations, or even ground activity in the country, would greatly increase, and even the deconfliction process with Russia will not survive unscathed. The bottom line is: There are no easy military options in Syria, and even the best run operation will inevitably lead to escalation and a multiplication of the miscalculation factors already present in such a convoluted conflict.

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