April 19, 2018 | By Greg Jaffe, Ivo H. Daalder, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: What Did the Syria Strike Accomplish?

The United States, United Kingdom, and France launched coordinated air strikes against Syria’s military. To analyze the fallout, Council President Ivo Daalder joins Greg Jaffe, national security reporter from The Washington Post, for this week’s Deep Dish podcast.



[Ivo Daalder: The French said it may have been illegal, but at least it was legitimate.

Greg Jaffe: Is this going to change the outcome of the civil war? Not one bit.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about the aftermath of the recent US strikes on Syria that were, of course, coordinated with France and Great Britain. I'm joined for this conversation by Greg Jaffe, a reporter covering national security issues for the Washington Post. Greg, also, has covered the White House and the military for the Post. Greg, it's great to have you on the show.

Greg Jaffe: Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: Also, in this conversation is an ambassador, Ivo Daalder, who is President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and, also, served as the US Ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013. Ivo, great to have you back.

Ivo Daalder: Nice to be here.

Brian Hanson: So, as we know, last week the United States launched air strikes against Syrian targets in response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. Greg, I was wondering if you could start us off by just giving us the background and review what did the US actually do.

Greg Jaffe: So the US fired I think it was about 105 cruise missiles. It was a very targeted strike, so it was a strike designed to punish the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons, but I think explicitly designed not to kill or hit Iranian or Russian targets, and it was explicitly designed not to be a threat to the Assad regime. So this isn't [inaudible 00:01:28] to trying to hurt or damage Assad's military capability. This was very tightly directed at his chemical weapons capability.

Brian Hanson: And how effective was the strike?

Greg Jaffe: I don't know. I guess it depends how you judge effectiveness. Did all the missiles hit their targets? They seem to have. Is this going to change the outcome of the civil war? Not one bit. Will it stop Assad from using chemical weapons again? If I had to guess I would say probably not.

Brian Hanson: So some of the critics of this action have made the argument, Elliott Colin has made the argument that actually acting in this case was worse than doing nothing, that it really just exposed the weakness of the US and our inability to really have an impact on the ground. Ivo, how do you react to an argument like that? Was something important accomplished with these strikes?

Ivo Daalder: I'm sympathetic to Elliott's argument, although I probably would take the conclusion to that to a different end. Here's the issue. Chemical weapons were being used after we had finally in 2017 struck the Assad regime in response to yet another major nerve gas attack. At that time, I think it was Sarin that was being used. President Trump and the national security establishment around him came together, launched the 59 cruise missiles at that time, and we've seen that for a while there were no chemical weapons used, and then it started up again. We had chlorine used, which is actually not a banned chemical substance. It's banned as a weapon of warfare, which is an important distinction, and then you had this major number of casualties and really called the President's bluff and said, "When are you going to do something again?"

So striking in this case just to remind the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons somehow is unacceptable was the main purpose. As Greg said, it didn't change the situation on the ground. It was, in fact, explicitly designed not to change the situation on the ground.

Elliott's view is probably that we, and I'm just putting words in his mouth, but why not, is that we should be changing the situation on the ground. My view is I don't think we should be changing the situation on the ground, and I think the separation between a response to chemical weapons use and every other use is important because we have banned the use of chemical weapons since 1925. This is a norm that now exists in the international system that is important to enforce. It was, also, important to enforce it together with allies and to say it's not just the US. It's others that are part of it.

In that sense, will it deter future use? Probably not. I agree with Greg. But will it make Assad think once or twice before doing it again? Probably, and that's a good thing.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. So the bottom line is that, and the use of chemical weapons is an important norm for us to enforce.

Ivo Daalder: Yeah, I think so. I think chemical weapons are different. They weren't used in World War II, at least as battlefield weapons. They were, of course, used to exterminate millions of people in death camps, and that's rare for chemical weapons to use and it should be rare, and, in fact, it needs to be rarer.

Greg Jaffe: I would say one thing, enforcement of this norm isn't as an absolute as we make it sound. So there have been a dozen or so chemical weapon attacks since the early part of this year. When we step in, it tends to be when there are pictures, when there's a high casualty or a high fatality number. So even our enforcement of this norm, it's not pure. Not that it should be, but that it's one small point.

Ivo Daalder: You're right, Greg, because remember that McMaster was at the Munich Security Conference, and mentioned there that the Syrians have been using chemical, chlorine in this case, chemical weapons repeatedly, and nothing happened until pictures and larger number of deaths occurred. So you're right that it hasn't been pure.

Brian Hanson: And let me just push on that a little bit. Is that problematic that we only occasionally enforce this? Does it undermine the credibility or the effectiveness of the acts when we do choose to respond to a violation of this norm?

Greg Jaffe: That's a tough one for me. Yeah.

Brian Hanson: Go ahead. Go ahead, Greg.

Greg Jaffe: Yeah. My sense is the White House has really been wrestling with this issue, and the President as well, when do they enforce this norm and when don't they? So there was a meeting that wasn't well covered or well written about that the President had in the Oval Office. I believe it's in early March with McMaster, Mattis, John Kelly to discuss the President's upset at these small scale uses of chemical weapons, and wants options to both strike Syria and then to punish Russia with sanctions for its support of the regime.

And it's interesting. At that point, they produced a series of options on both of those counts, but choose not to act, and essentially they don't act until they get this much larger attack.

Ivo Daalder: I mean I think the important point is that we did act at some point, and should you use a military response after every single instance in which you can verify the use of chlorine gas, even if the number of causalities are relatively low? Maybe you can make the case. I would make the case that it is important to enforce it on a regular basis if there's a regular degree of defiance. My suspicion is we're not going to see chemical weapons used for a while, and maybe when everybody's attention is somewhere else it comes back.

By the way, the reality, also, is they're not particularly effective from a military or even a population control perspective. So it may not be necessary to use them in order to achieve the effects that Assad is trying to achieve, which is to control his territory.

Brian Hanson: So this leads to an area where a number of our Facebook group participants asked questions. Michael, Christina, [Nawell 00:07:45] all basically asked about the legal justification for the attack, and I think there are a couple issues here. One is whether or not there is a legal justification, either in international law or whether there is domestic authority for the President to take this action, and the listeners were asking about was their authority and does it matter.

One piece just to add on before I invite you guys to comment on your own views, is that several commenters have noticed that the Trump Administration has not created justifications, either in terms of domestic law or ... I'm sorry, in domestic authority or international law, whereas ... Well, in past administrations there, at least, has been an attempt to justify the actions in both of those ways, whether or not people found those convincing or not.

So I'm curious about both these sets of questions, about is there a justification for this, and does it matter that the Trump Administration hasn't engaged in even using that kind of language to address the attack.

Ivo Daalder: Let me take the international one, if I can, which is complicated one. One, I do think it is important that when you use force, you, at least, try to justify that within the international norms. It's particularly important if you're using force to enforce an international norm, which is the justification in this case.

The reality is, under our international legal system, there is no clearcut way in which you could say this is either for self-defense or it was authorized by the UN. It clearly wasn't authorized by the UN, which are the two ways in which you, under international law, can use force, which is why, for example, the French said it may have been illegal, but at least it was legitimate, which is, by the way, a new argument by the French, who have never adopted the illegal but legitimate form. They've always found some way to try to embrace international law. The Brits made the argument that, and this comes out of the Kosovo War back in 1999, that there was a humanitarian emergency that required one to act on behalf of the international community, which ultimately led to the doctrine of responsibility to protect. If a government is not protecting its citizens, then there's a responsibility that falls to the international community to do that for you.

How you square responding to chemical weapons, but not to bare all bombs under those circumstances is a question mark. But it does raise the fundamental issue that not everybody is going to agree with our legal or, in fact, nonlegal interpretation of the action, and that, in my view, means the more countries you could have gotten to participate, the more countries can come along and be part of the international effort, the more legitimate, at least, it would be. In this case, it was better than what we did in 2017 when we did it alone. Now we did it with the Brits and the French. It would be nice if we could get maybe the Saudis, maybe the Jordanians, who absolutely live in the area, or indeed countries from other parts of the world to participate in this as well.

We have 60 coalition partners in the area, so it's not like we can't call on other nations to be part of this.

Brian Hanson: And, Greg, how do you see these issues of authorization and legality?

Greg Jaffe: It's a tough one. Watching the Obama Administration, I felt like they often sort of tied themselves in knots legalistically when it came to these sorts of issues. At times, I felt like there were just too many lawyers, and the debates were circular, and, listen, this time it feels there was too little discussion with regard to these issues.

And so I don't quite know what the right balance is. It's interesting to me there hasn't been a lot of outcry from the Hill, although this week we're starting to see a resurrected debate around the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, and Syria, and around the world, a new authorization since we've sort of been continuing ... Not sort of. We have been continuing to operate under the 9/11 authorization, although the Syria strikes against the Assad regime don't fall under that authorization.

Brian Hanson: I was interested reading the other day, and I don't remember exactly where, that Mattis had been pushing for a Congressional authorization, which, by the way, was the exact issue that Obama pushed in 2013, and failing to get the Congressional authorization then didn't move forward with the strikes at that time. Do you have anything on this? Was that a ruse by Mattis not to do anything, because there was this sense that Mattis really thought that the risk of escalation was too high, or was it a serious legal argument on his part?

Greg Jaffe: I don't think we know, and we don't know even that he made this request. The White House yesterday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders put out a statement on the record saying that Mattis made no such request, and Mattis denied making that request. Does that mean that he didn't do it? I'm not sure. I think part of the reason they were so quick to deny this on the record was because they're worried about this AUMF debate and they see the two issues as connected.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. The AUMF debate, just for our listeners' benefit, will you explain what that is?

Greg Jaffe: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, replacing the 9/11 use of force. So whether Mattis made this request is a subject of some debate. I do think you're exactly right, that Mattis is cautious about using this force in Syria, and I think for a couple reasons. One is he doesn't want to provoke the Russians. I think even though he has a reputation as an Iran hawk, he doesn't want to provoke the Iranians, and he worries about US troops who are still scattered throughout Iraq and Syria. If we get in a fight with the Iranians, those troops become very vulnerable very quick.

Then on top of all of that, he knows he's got a president in President Trump whose heart is not really in this Syria fight. The Administration made clear again yesterday in briefings to Congress, a classified briefing, the President, despite these strikes against the Assad regime's chemical weapons capability, we're still on the way out the door.

Brian Hanson: And there were comments made at the time of the original use of chemical weapons by Assad that Trump's previous comments about wanting to get out the door could have emboldened Assad. The fact that Trump is returning to this message of, "We'd really like to get the heck out of here relatively soon," does that have an effect on what kind of messages were sent or what's achieved by these strikes at all?

Greg Jaffe: I don't think it did, just because I think that our strategy is so confused it's hard to know what the message is at this point. That would be my simple answer.

Ivo Daalder: Yeah. I might go further. I think our strategy is pretty clear. We are not going to intervene in any way, shape or form to affect the outcome of the civil war. We are there for a very defined purpose, which relates to ISIS. Now, I happen to think that the civil war and ISIS are inextricably linked, so your ability to go after ISIS without solving the civil war in the long term is going to be pretty small. But I think both the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration have tried to make this distinction between defeating ISIS on the one hand and solving the civil war on the other hand, and I think Assad, and certainly Putin, and Quds Forces, Soleimani, the Iranian leader of the Quds Forces, have concluded that we are not going to intervene and prevent them from doing what it is that they're going to do. An occasional missile strike against empty buildings or empty runways is the price to be paid for living in the world that we did, but they're going to just push ahead.

I don't think we have any credibility left. I don't think this is particular to the Trump Administration. I think it's true for our policy for the past six or seven years on influencing the outcome of the civil conflict, and I don't think they think we have any influence or desire to influence it.

Greg Jaffe: And I would say maybe from a pure humanitarian standpoint, maybe at this point it's just best to let the regime win and end this war, because the suffering is so great, especially if we lack the capability or will to broker a real compromise.

Brian Hanson: And in terms of the dynamics on the ground and in Syria, there have been a little bit reporting of the course of the week that the US has been talking to other Arab countries in the region about the possibility of bringing troops in to serve in the roles and the areas in northeast Syria where we would be leaving. Do we have any sense of if that's a likely outcome, and if so, whether or not that would be beneficial or not?

Ivo Daalder: My sense is that they're not going to do it without us. They may not even do it with us, but they're not going to do it without us. I think we've learned over time that in order to build large military coalitions, the US needs to be in the lead. I have yet to see a coalition in which the US was not in the lead. Perhaps the only exception was the NATO coalition against Libya, but that was a NATO coalition, so the US was defacto in the lead, even if we weren't the major force, and we did participate in much of that operation.

So the idea, which seems to be strong in the White House, particularly in the Oval Office, that the Saudis, and the Jordanians, and the UAE are going to deploy tens of thousands of troops and spend tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to reconstruct Syria just doesn't strike me to be very realistic, quite apart from the fact why would they rebuild a country, Syria, that is on their enemy list, how to square that problem. But I just don't see the Saudis or anybody else doing this.

Greg Jaffe: Yeah. And to just add to the absurdity of this whole situation, it seems like Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, is playing a role here, too, suggesting that some of the support can be done through private military contractors, rather than US troops, and that the Arab nations could pay for it. I think it adds yet another layer of absurdity to this plan.

Ivo Daalder: It gives outsourcing our military leadership a whole new name.

Brian Hanson: So I want to turn ... You guys have both referenced the involvement of our allies in this, and I think this is interesting and just want to ask you about it, because President Trump has certainly not been a person who has embraced cooperating with allies as key ways to accomplish foreign policy goals. Yet in this case, as you both pointed out, the French and the British participated in this action.

Does this tell us anything more beyond this single action of whether or not the Administration is shifting its thinking about how to use allies, or how allies are thinking about engaging this Administration? Is there a bigger lesson in this?

Ivo Daalder: So I don't know the exact sequence of events that got the French and the Brits to join this strike, whether it was demand or supply driven, whether it was because we asked them or because they said they wanted to be part of it. My sense is it's more the latter. The French, and particularly Macron, made clear at the time of the April strikes, which he wasn't elected at that time, that he thought not striking in 2013 and leaving the French hanging was a terrible mistake by Obama, and that if this happened again, the French needed to be there. So I assume that the moment there was any talk about a possible military strike, Macron put up his hand and said, "Me, too."

I think the same is in some ways true for the Brits, who had asked for and received a significant ally, including American support, for responding to Russia and the assassination attempt on the Russian former spy and his daughter, and, therefore, decided we need to demonstrate that when allies are there for us, we should be there for the international community, in this case, because it's not for the United States.

So my sense is this was as much driven out of London and Paris as it was out of Washington. Now, to the credit of the Administration, they embraced it and they made it real. I think Mattis, as one of the leaders in this effort, would always welcome allies, because that's where he comes from. Whether Trump really cared one way or the other, I have my doubts.

Greg Jaffe: I think Trump cares from just a pure financial perspective. I mean his motivation is the allies need to do more so we can do less. So the notion that you could tell him that, "Hey, the Brits and the French are involved." Maybe it's a few less American planes, a few less American bombs. I think there actually might be some appeal just in that logic. I think he wants the Arabs involved, too. He's not anti-coalition. He's pro allies doing more, so American can pull back and focus on America.

Ivo Daalder: Yeah. I think that's fair.

Brian Hanson: So as we close, what is the most consequential next decision for this Administration regarding the situation in Syria? So where should our listeners pay the most attention to understand what the next steps are and what the implications are there? So what's most significant? Ivo, I'll start with you.

Ivo Daalder: I think two things. If there's another instance of chemical weapons used anywhere in Syria, will we again respond is going to be the first thing to look for, and the second is at what point, I really think within the next few months, certainly before the end of the year, have we decided that the job of our troops are done and they will start heading home?

Brian Hanson: And, Greg, what do you see?

Greg Jaffe: I think it will be interesting to look and see how quickly these troops come out. I think it will say a lot about Mattis' influence over this President right now. So the President initially, when he announced the withdrawal at this rally in Ohio, his aides asked him, "How quickly do you want the US troops out of Syria," and he said, "48 hours," which is ridiculous and was never going to happen. But it was, I think, Mattis' influence that pushes him to essentially a four to six month time frame, which is what we're talking about now. How quickly those troops come out, whether they stay out, I think it tells us a lot about Mattis' influence over this President with regard to the use of the military.

Brian Hanson: Great. A couple important things to keep our eye on. Ivo and Greg, thanks very much for joining for this conversation, and, Greg, particularly, thanks for highlighting some of your reporting and developments in DC that haven't gotten as much attention as [inaudible 00:22:50]. Thank you both for being here.

Greg Jaffe: Thanks for having me.

Ivo Daalder: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard, please feel free to ask them on our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, and as a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

If you liked the show, let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, please tap the share button on your podcast app and send it to them as well.

Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll back soon for another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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