By Hal Brands
As a result of the US airstrikes against the Syrian military last week, we are all about to learn a great deal. It is, surely, too soon to know precisely what impact the strikes ordered by President Donald Trump will have on the regime and where the Syrian civil war is heading. This is largely because key players including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran and the Syrian opposition—not to mention the US—are still plotting their next moves.
But it seems certain that the events of the coming weeks will help answer five crucial questions about the civil war and the various actors that are now struggling to shape the outcome of that conflict.
First, how much of a gambler is Vladimir Putin? The Russian president has gained a reputation over the past three years as a shrewd risk-taker, able to outmaneuver his opponents with the well-timed coup de main. Yet in both Ukraine and Syria since 2015, Putin has been able to operate in environments in which the US seemed highly averse to military confrontation.
Now, however, the Trump administration has demonstrated that it is willing to use force against Putin’s ally in Damascus, and that it is prepared to risk significantly higher tensions with Moscow. During the Barack Obama presidency, in other words, Putin confronted a US that was predictably—if perhaps understandably—prudent. Now he faces a president whose risk calculus is far harder to discern.
So how will Putin respond? Will he double down on support for Assad—perhaps by helping the Syrian regime harass or target US aircraft —in hopes that he can still out-escalate the Americans? Or will he seek to reduce tensions—perhaps by shoving Assad toward renewed negotiations with the opposition —in hopes of avoiding a sharper showdown with Washington? The path Putin chooses will reveal how much he cares about Syria in the first place, and how much of a geopolitical gambler he really is.
Second, how crafty is Assad? The Syrian leader was once seen as the mild-mannered ophthalmologist and a would-be reformer; now he is perhaps the greatest butcher of the young 21st century. Yet brutality aside, Assad’s strategic acumen has so far remained difficult to discern. He has proven a far more skillful survivor than nearly anyone would have predicted in 2011, but his heavy-handedness also helped turn what were at first peaceful protests into a zero-sum civil war; and he has now managed, through ghastly chemical attacks, to turn the initially friendly Trump administration against his remaining in power. So is Assad a shrewd if morally abhorrent statesman, or simply another dictator who substitutes savagery for strategy?
What he does next will tell us a great deal. If Assad confines himself to a symbolic and non-escalatory response, if he desists from using chemical weapons, if he at least feigns a willingness to negotiate with the opposition, he may be able to escape the noose once again —and perhaps even return to the less spectacular forms of murder that the international community has proven willing to tolerate for more than six years. If, however, he lashes out, whether by continuing to use chemical weapons or by seeking to extract revenge on the US, he may succeed in eliciting the decisive international intervention has so far managed to avoid.
The answers to these first two questions will also bear heavily on the answer to a third: How slippery is the slope? The Obama administration’s go-to argument against military intervention was always that the options that could be executed at a tolerable cost were unlikely to alter the trajectory of the civil war in any meaningful way— and that a first step was thus likely to lead inexorably to pressures to take a second step and then a third.
Proponents of military intervention, in contrast, argued that a bold but limited American stroke could dramatically shift the psychology of the conflict and put Assad and his patrons on the defensive. No second or third step would be necessary, this argument went, because the first step—if executed with sufficient skill and resolve—would be sufficient.
We are about to find out which thesis is correct. Perhaps even the very limited American intervention undertaken to date will force Russia to rethink its support for Assad, or force Assad to accept that he cannot use the only weapons—his chemical arsenal—that might allow him to reconquer remaining rebel-held territories. Perhaps Trump’s limited engagement will thereby create a new strategic equilibrium more favorable to an acceptable political settlement or some other tolerable outcome.
Alternatively, perhaps the psychological impact of the strikes will be equivalent to their military impact—which is to say, not much. Perhaps the strikes will even cause Russia and Iran to redouble their own efforts to checkmate US intervention. In that case, Trump would soon be confronted with the question of whether to double down or risk looking the paper tiger, and the slope may come to seem slippery indeed. The first scenario would make Obama’s caution from 2011 through 2016 look excessive in retrospect; the latter would make it seem fairly wise after all.
These questions, in turn, relate to a fourth key issue: Is a negotiated settlement even possible? Over the past six years, myriad diplomatic and political processes have been launched in hopes of bringing about an end to the civil war. Every single one has failed. In the weeks preceding Assad’s latest chemical weapons attack, it did seem that the conflict was perhaps reaching a new equilibrium, with the regime largely having consolidated control over the western spine of the country, and various opposition forces controlling their own chunks of territory in other areas. But with Assad still determined—at least rhetorically—to retake the entire country, and with many opposition groups still vehemently opposed to his remaining in power, the prospects for turning that equilibrium into a sustainable settlement remain uncertain at best.
The question now is whether the strategic shock of US strike can create a new diplomatic context in which the parties—particularly the regime—are more amenable to compromise. Or, alternatively, will the aims of Assad and the opposition—not to mention the outside parties supporting them—remain so divergent and intractable that no negotiated settlement is possible?
Finally, as these issues come into sharper focus, we will also learn more about a fifth crucial question: Is the Trump administration capable of effective strategy? Neither effectiveness nor even basic competence has been a hallmark of Trump’s administration so far. But the president and his aides have now entered a crisis in which they must either rise to the occasion or suffer their worst—and most costly —setback yet.
In short order, Trump’s team will have to address a host of tricky questions about US aims and strategy in Syria. Must Assad go after all? Will there be follow-on strikes if the regime does not de-escalate? What type of diplomatic endgame is envisioned for Syria? No less important, the administration will have to devise—on the fly—an effective strategy of coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis not just Assad but his powerful patrons in Moscow and Tehran in order to achieve whatever goal is ultimately sought. It will have to do all this, moreover, under intense public scrutiny, amid rising tensions with Russia and Iran, and as plenty of other geopolitical issues compete for attention.
Crises can be clarifying moments. They can cast new light on the contours of an ongoing conflict; they can lay bare the characteristics—and competence —of the parties involved. The Syria crisis is the acid test of the Trump administration: We are about to find out whether the president and his advisers can make the grade. Given the outsized role that the US plays not just in Syria but around the world, this may well be the most important question that the Syria crisis will help us answer.