I have been asked by several clients today about what happens next in Syria following the most recent alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Damascus. This question translates, initially at least, as "what will be President Donald Trump's response?". Given that there really are no good options for the US, as President Bashar al Assad has almost certainly calculated, this is a very valid question indeed.
This is a difficult question to answer given that (not unusually) the signals from Mr Trump himself have not been consistent, ie last week he was saying he was going to pull the US out of Syria "very soon", whereas this week, presumably urged on by his new and ultra-hawkish foreign policy team, he looks very likely to escalate US engagement there, at least temporarily. This being said, I don't think the contrast between these two positions is as stark as it may seem; indeed, I believe it to be broadly consistent with the scenario I shall outline towards the end of this article. I also reckon that, at the risk of sounding very cynical indeed, Mr Trump may also have in mind the fact that when he last launched missiles against the Assad regime in April 2017 in response to a chemical weapons attack his personal approval ratings went up by two percentage points. Given the growing pressure on him domestically from the Mueller investigation and the related action against his personal counsel, this is exactly what I would expect, as I argued in my 8 April article (albeit not relative to Syria per se).
Pulling all this together, and at the risk of being proved wrong in quick time, I offer the following scenario.
- As far as I can tell, there is no domestic appetite in the US for a major escalation of US ground troops in Syria, which is what would be required if Mr Trump were to decide that he wanted to bring about regime change through military means, ie to do in Syria what Bush 43 did in Iraq. Furthermore, I think the consequences of the Saddam ouster in 2003 weigh more than sufficiently on policymakers in Washington, even on the hawkish John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, to make such an action a very low probability indeed.
- This being said, in principle at least the US could use its air power (ie not just missiles but piloted aircraft too) to pretty devastating effect. But: (a) this would mean going up against some pretty advanced air defence systems - eg and notably Russian S-400 triple-A; and (b) the consequences of Nato's air-only intervention in Libya and the ouster of Qaddafi should weigh against attempting to remove Mr Assad by this means.
- As 2(a) above suggests, going full tilt at Mr Assad would effectively be a declaration of war against, at minimum, the Russians in theatre. It is not at all clear that this could be contained and even though the risk of escalation into an all-out conflict between the US and Russia may be low, would you take a chance on it?
- Effectively, going to war with Syria would not only be going to war with Russia but also, of course, Iran. As I have been writing for some time, I think the risk of some sort of military confrontation between the US and Iran is not negligible, albeit still a tail risk. I can envisage a scenario where:
(a) Mr Trump orders limited (but bigger than the 2017 attack) missile strikes against the Assad regime this week or early next, possibly in coordination with action by others (France, the UK) in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack. Then, as happened, 12 months or so ago, we go back more or less to the status quo ante as far as the actual in-theatre conflict is concerned. This is consistent with his warning to the Russians earlier today that missiles "will be coming".
(b) In response to Moscow's support for Mr Assad, inter alia, (and despite Mr Trump's desire to build a relationship with Mr Putin - though we have this week seen his first public criticism of the Russian President) the US continues to ramp up sanctions against Russia.
(c) Mr Trump's refusal to sign the Iran nuclear deal sanctions waiver come May triggers a response from Tehran, eg ballistic missile tests, which Washington uses as a pretext/excuse/justification for a cruise missile attack on an Iranian missile launching site, linking this to Iranian support for Mr Assad.
Most of this is not a tail risk today but a probable scenario, the consequences of which are far from clear at this stage but almost certainly negative as far as any hope of peace and stability in the region is concerned.