The United States launching several dozen cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase is a significant about-face for President Donald Trump after years of warning against the wisdom of intervening against Bashar Assad’s government and praising Russia for supporting it. In the wake of the missile strike, there has also been more confident talk in Washington against the Syrian president and calls for intervening to topple the Syrian government. But two things should give us pause in expecting too much too quickly: Syria’s Russian patron and the nature of civil war.
To the extent that Assad wants to avoid future punitive strikes, this limited action might make him and his generals hesitate in using chemical weapons in the future. But this depends on a belief that this strike isn’t just a one-off. The Syrian government won’t be deterred from similar atrocities in the future if it believes that American attention will wander — or if it expects additional support from its Russian backer.
It has been reported that Russian forces were notified about the strike ahead of time — and they declined to stop it, though one has to wonder if Russia knew the strike was coming, it would be surprising if Syria didn’t know as well. There’s no guarantee that Russia won’t make such strikes harder for the U.S to carry out in the future, whether by interposing its forces between American forces and potential targets, patrolling key parts of Syrian airspace, or causing problems for American forces elsewhere. Russia has proved that it doesn’t want to see Assad toppled. Therefore, whether this strike really does deter future chemical attacks, as Trump seems to hope it will, depends on whether the Russians allow it.
So what happens next? Russia can exercise a veto over the deterrent value of the attack if it remains a one-off — and undermining that veto may require a willingness to risk open conflict with Russia. There seems to be little stomach for that in Washington. If the U.S. effectively joins the war against Assad, it risks turning a rhetorical war into a shooting war with Russia. Russia has a strong hand to play simply by being present; it’s already shut down the back channel that facilitated coordination with American assets, raising the risk of a collision with American forces and putting the onus for avoiding that risk squarely on Washington.
It isn’t to say there is no leverage to be gained over Russia with the threat of further American involvement, but deeper intervention — abandoning the strategy of trying to contain the war and relying on proxies — will force us to confront a final, ominous reality: the grim nature of civil war.
Civil wars tend to last a long time because peace settlements are difficult to reach, especially when at least one side must return to civilian life or share power. Rebels don’t lay down their weapons when they know the government can then renege on any promises made to a now-powerless opposition.
The stakes are so high — control of the government or death at its hands — that civil wars are all-or-nothing affairs. Political solutions, and any limits foreign powers might like to place on the fighting, are generally nonstarters. And when battlefield progress is the difference between life and death for the government, the threat of punitive strikes for using any weapon — whether it’s poison gas, nerve agents or barrel bombs — might ring hollow. It’s difficult to deter someone whose back is against the wall. With civil wars such as the one in Syria, that’s the case for nearly everyone involved.
Scott Wolford is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas.