The US President just ordered a cruise missile air strike on a Syrian air base after a Syrian military air raid on a rebel held town led to accusations of a chemical weapons attack.
Whilst there are many theories and allegations about the attack itself it is more interesting to review these incidents in a wider global geopolitical frame.
Whilst the Syrian Air Force was accused of the attack, no evidence had been produced to support this beyond reports from rebel held or rebel aligned sources, the video of the innocent victims and the fact that the Syrian air force undeniably carried out an air strike at that time and location.
Contrary to normal protocol the US did not establish the facts, make a case or seek international consensus instead conducted a unilateral air strike which inflicted limited damage to the base.
The strikes took place during a summit with the Chinese leader, subsequently a US carrier group moved to the Western Pacific and the US Secretary of State stated the Chinese had agreed that ‘action should be taken’ in regards North Korea.
The air strikes took place whilst the US President was at his first summit with the Chinese leader, whom he had previously urged to put pressure on North Korea, which has conducted several missile tests this year as well as a suspected solid fuel ballistic missile just before the summit. Suspected North Korean agents also allegedly murdered the brother of the North Korean leader this year.
North Korea traditionally tests new US Presidents to either extract concessions or obtain breathing space to continue its activities, however their actions have been consistent with their stated aim of acquiring nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
It could thus be argued that the US National Security team has undertaken a wide ranging grand strategic action (although without any indication of the underlying policy) which utilises all of the US’s strengths, such as its universal military reach, its ability to conduct devastating strikes without risking its personnel or strike assets, its naval power as well as its diplomatic skills, as well as taking something generally considered to be a liability-the impulsive nature of the current US President- and made it a strength.
We should first look at the following factors in order to better analyse the situation;
US air strike: open source footage shows that although there is substantial damage to the air base, some aircraft remain intact, as do the ground based air defence systems, radar and runway. Syrian strike aircraft took off on a mission from the aircraft the same day as did Russian helicopters, in a pointed act of defiance. Russian media and government sources also stated most of the missiles missed but without showing the corresponding wreckage of these missiles.
The US had used its deconfliction channels to warn the Russians who also used the base, in essence warning the Syrians, thus reducing the damage and casualties (although the Syrians claimed 7 dead). The strike thus had virtually no operational utility. Even if the damage to the base infrastructure is substantial there are sufficient major and minor bases around Syria for Assad and his allies to use.
Syria: the strikes on Assad mark a U Turn for the current US administration which in the space of a few days changed its policy from accepting Assad’s government and prioritising the war against Daesh to endorsing regime change. Whether the US wishes to entangle itself in this quagmire and find itself fighting not just Daesh but the Assad government and the multiple rebel factions remains to be seen.
Syrian Rebels: if in fact the Syrian rebels did perpetrate this attack, it would be the first operational manipulation of the US Presidents use of television of an information source and impulsive nature. Whilst the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and has no compunction about killing its people, there is little logic short of pure arrogance to conduct such an attack when it had achieved a convergence of views between Russia and US on regime preservation, was winning on the battlefield and going in to peace talks with a strong hand. The rebels (of whom there are many) on the other hand were entering peace talks from a position of weakness, were facing Iranian, Russian and Assad forces as well as each other, the US’s prioritisation of support for the anti Daesh fight and were no closer to forming a united front or consensus than they were to beating Assad.
All sides of the Syrian conflict are masters of propaganda and the rebels are extremely skilled at manipulating Western political and civil audiences as the siege of Aleppo, during the US Presidential election demonstrated. It is unclear who was responsible or why but any reasoned analysis must look at all actors and it is clear that the rebels had most to gain from this attack.
Russia: Russia as the protector of the Assad regime particularly from the air with the introduction of ground based air defence S 400 systems as well as air superiority fighters and launching attacks from their sole aircraft carrier, looks extremely impotent in the face of the unilateral air strikes, in which the US did not even bother to suppress the Russian air defences and actually warned them in advance. Their alleged influence operation targeting the US Presidential elections appears to have produced virtually no dividends thus far. Allegations of collusion with a foreign power would have destroyed any normal politician, however the personality of the current US President and the political atmosphere in the US is so unusual that accepted norms do not affect him. Facing an organic opposition movement at home in the run up to the next elections, economic morass and no hope of sanctions relief, the Russian response is likely to be patient, measured and asymmetric.
North Korea: whilst the US has moved assets around North Korea, the probability of an actual attack without some sort of North Korean military provocation remains low, as North Koreas key trump card has never been its potential nuclear weapons but its ability to use artillery to destroy Seoul and its suburbs. Unless North Korea attacks the US or its allies or mobilises for an attack the risks of any military action against them vastly outweigh the rewards.
China: for China North Korea is a buffer between the capitalist, US allied South Korea and a useful tool to pressure the US and its east Asian allies. What the Chinese cannot afford is a collapse of the North Korean regime flooding its borders with refugees and weapons. China’s key interests lie within the south China Sea, trade and its great power projections. Whilst China can shut off coal and other needed materials to North Korea it must also be ready to deal with the consequences of their bluff being called and the North Korean regime simply ignoring them or upping the ante with more missile tests or provocations.
Unilateral military action against them would be difficult operationally however a joint operation with the US and its allies would be too dramatic a strategic realignment. However, China might have other unknown levers they can use on North Korea. The key question is what price will they extract for acting in whatever guise.
Geopolitics: Great nations and empires act generally because they are forced to by circumstance. Reality generally trumps rhetoric. President Obama wished to withdraw from the Middle East but coul not due to the collapse of the US back Iraqi army and government and its need to try and moderate the Syrian Civil/ proxy war, likewise the pivot by President Obama to Asia was not due to brilliant strategic insight but a simple recognition that Asia will be the next centre for trade and manufacture and China will be the next superpower. The pivot and the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty were simply tools for the US to try and manage these emerging rivals. Conversely the US’s interest in the Middle East was never due to ideological or personal preference rather to ensure US access to one of the largest available sources of oil as well as its shipping lanes.
The strategic importance of the Middle East faded as the US began weaning itself of foreign oil and the Iraq and Afghan Wars ended. These had sapped US strength and created room for other powers such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and China to begin to assert themselves. The previous US President who ironically revelled in being considered a multilateralist understood this and sought to limit direct and overt US involvement as much as possible, using UAVs, special forces and contractors in the main and leaving Regional Powers to balance themselves out. This unfortunately led to the brutal proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, the renewed war in Iraq but from a US perspective, however bloody, they were not sapping US blood, treasure or diplomacy.
The attack on the Air base could have several effects. The first is that in Syria, Assad will continue prosecuting the war with Iranian and Russian assistance with the same vigour and brutality. If he was the perpetrator of the chemical weapons attack he is unlikely to repeat it and do be honest doesn’t (and didn’t) need to. It is likely that the war will become a stalemate with the recapture of Daesh held territories in Syria and Iraq. However the current administration’s rapid anti Assad U -Turn means that the strategic breathing space they had acquired by being able to chart a different path from their predecessor is lost and it will difficult to negotiate an end to the war, so it will continue in all its brutality.
Russia will need to respond in same way to maintain their credibility as defenders of Syria and domestic narrative of a great power. Direct confrontation is too risky, although proxies could attack US troops in Syria increasing the cost of the operation. Russia could also take advantage of the US being focussed on Syria, Iraq and North Korea to launch an asymmetric operations in the Baltic States, Central or Eastern Europe or Western Europe. If any of these prove too difficult, Russia has the very easy option of escalating the Ukrainian conflict.
It is unlikely North Korea will back down from their perspective, their conventional weapons make invasion costly for South Korea and US forces, nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles will make it costly for Japan, China and the US, thus there is no logical reason for them to stop attempting to acquire these weapon systems. It is more likely that they will sustain the crisis until a last minute intervention from China, allows them to save face and appear as if descalation itself is a concession. Any other concessions they will most likely violate.
Backing down to US or Chinese pressure without being able to claim some sort of victory (like direct negotiations with the US, sanctions relief or some form of aid. would weaken the regimes hold on power amongst the various elite factions potentially threatening the regimes rule.
This brings us to China.
China has much to risk by joining a strong concerted US action against North Korea.
If their pressure fails they have lost credibility and a convenient pressure point with the US. If the US unilaterally acts then they are faced with either supporting a despicable, unsustainable regime or allowing a well trained and equipped western Army fight its way up to their borders, if the regime collapses they will be flooded with refugees, the remnants of the North Korean forces and the plethora of weapons in the country.
It will also show some of its own restive people that totalitarian states are not invulnerable.
China however does want concessions on several issues including trade, South China Sea and other issues. If they get these concessions in return for activating certain levers against North Korea, short of a total blockade or support for military action it is still a win for them. They maintain their North Korean pressure point with which to influence the US and its allies, could obtain concessions from the US and complete the realignment of global power that the US withdrawal from the TPP indicated by demonstrating they are the new, dominant Pacific power and begin to realign that region to their interests.
The use of the Syrian strike to open up the North Korean discussions can be seen as a good example of the comprehensive use of a nations tools, however it is unclear to see how short of an extremely bloody war, the US benefits from this strike.
It has dramatically reduced its room for manoeuvre in Syria by attacking Assad and advocating regime change and put itself at the mercy of China in order to try and achieve some sort of decision on North Korea.
At the same time Russia has cause to skirt around the periphery waiting for the US to once more commit itself to a theatre so it can assert itself elsewhere and give the US or one of its allies a bloody nose.
The US has conducted the opening moves, we await the counter moves with interest.