Late Monday evening, the Trump administration released a statement to the press saying that it had detected preparations by Syrian government forces to again use chemical weapons against its own people. The release warned of a “heavy price” that would be paid should the regime go through with the attack. The next day, reports surfaced that some officials were caught off guard by the announcement. But when no attack occurred, Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed the administration’s threat deterred the Assad regime—while skeptics suggested the entire episode might have been an attempt to distract from the president’s domestic troubles.
Trump’s latest foray into the Syrian civil war raises a number of important questions: did the administration’s warning deter a chemical attack? What are the risks if it had to follow through on the threat? And what does this latest incident say about the administration’s national security process?
The answer to the first question—whether the Trump administration’s threat deterred the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again—is a definite maybe. One of the fundamental dilemmas of analyzing the efficacy of deterrence is measuring the outcome of something that did not occur. Did the Soviet Union refrain from invading Western Europe because of the American threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons? Or did it not actually plan to do so in the first place, regardless of the risks of nuclear retaliation? Specious reasoning runs rampant in discussions of deterrence.
Part of the answer to whether the Trump administration deterred a Syrian chemical attack depends on whether Assad regime forces were actually planning one. While the administration claims it has evidence that they were, it is still unclear at this time. As of this writing, Bellingcat—which produces some of the best open source analysis on the Syrian conflict—has not found evidence to support the claim. That does not mean the Assad regime was definitively not planning to use chemical weapons. As Heather Hurlburt of the New America Foundation noted this week in her column for New York magazine, the United Nations has documented nearly 300 actual or suspected uses of chemical weapons by the regime—often using commonly available chemicals, such as chlorine. So there is a decent chance, on any given day, that Syrian government force might actually be preparing to use chemical weapons.
That “decent chance” leads to the second question because it means President Trump might have to follow through on his promise of a “heavy price” for the Assad regime should it use chemical weapons again. Trump has already attacked Syria once for the government’s use of chemical weapons, launching 59 cruise missiles in April.
Since then, American involvement in the Syrian conflict has become even more complex. As the Islamic State, against which the United States is in direct conflict in Syria, continues to lose territory, American-backed fighters are more frequently in contact with Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces—increasing the chances the U.S. military will be as well. A number of incidents have already occurred. American forces shot down two Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter that were attacking U.S.-backed forces. A Russian jet also buzzed an American spy plane. After the Syrian jet was downed, Moscow warned that it would treat U.S. aircraft operating in certain parts of Syrian airspace, causing the U.S. military to temporarily reposition some of its forces. Robin Wright of the New Yorker notes that all of this is occurring with little indication from the administration of what its strategy for the country is, and what risks it should be willing to take to accomplish its goals.
The administration’s strategy and the risks it is willing to engender to pursue it should be a product of its national security process. But as this latest episode reveals, all is not well in that arena. In the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s warning to the Syrian government, there was confusion over the administration’s announcement and who was involved in crafting the president’s statement.
Officials have pushed back on the notion that they were not involved the president’s decision to release his statement. But as Hurlburt explains, the language that those involved used to explain their various roles suggests a national security process that should be cause for concern. She writes:
On Tuesday, the administration also offered its story of how the decision played out. Trump received the intelligence Monday morning. By the time the secretaries of State and Defense arrived at the White House for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Modi, Politico reported, they “were informed” of the plan to issue a statement, White House officials said, and had the opportunity to “work the language.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster “had already been briefed and weighed in on the plan.” Administration officials told the New York Times that cabinet members were “aware of” the plan to issue a statement.
But those passive constructions are not normal. A president’s national security adviser doesn’t get briefed on presidential statements on breaking security issues — he or she proposes them, chairs the meetings at which they are decided, and drafts them. Secretaries of Defense aren’t just “aware” of redline threats to use military force — they have explicitly signed off on them and have the Pentagon humming on plans to implement them. Secretaries of State are intimately engaged, not just “informed,” of plans to issue a military warning to a Russian client state.
It is not normal to move decision-making around highly sensitive intelligence from the president’s intelligence briefing directly to the press office, and only later back to the security professionals to work the text. Who were the objects of all those passive sentences, the senior officials doing the deciding and briefing and drafting? Was it just Spicey at his desk?
So it is possible that the administration may have deterred the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. In the process, it is threatening to draw the United States deeper into a conflict with increasing risks of escalation and no clear understanding of the goals the administration seeks to achieve. Meanwhile, the process by which these decisions are made seems to be, to put it lightly, suboptimal.