US threats to attack Syria look less strong than parts of the media have made them appear and the US military is certain to oppose such action. The debate about the Syrian chemical attack yesterday and President Trump’s comments during a news conference with the King of Jordan led to speculation that the USA might be readying an attack on Syria. The speculation stems from the fact that US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that if the UN Security Council fails to take action over the chemical attack the USA might consider taking “unilateral action”, whilst President Trump himself made comments during the news conference that appeared to leave the military option open.
Unfortunately, on any international issue, one can never completely rule out the possibility of unilateral military action by the USA. However, on balance, neither Haley’s comment nor President Trump’s comment, seem to presage military action. Haley made her comment during a debate in the UN Security Council about the setting up of an investigation to look into the details of the chemical attack. No one questions that such an investigation should take place. The draft Resolution prepared by the Western powers… as with every Resolution the Western powers proposed during the Syrian crisis… is absurdly unbalanced, effectively blaming the Syrian government for the chemical attack before the investigation takes place. However, even this Resolution conceded that we need an investigation, especially after the relevant UN bodies said that they couldn’t themselves say who was responsible for the chemical attack. Russia, for its part, prepared its own draft Resolution that… far more neutrally… calls for an investigation.
It’s difficult to avoid the impression that Haley’s comment was part of the game of bluff and counter-bluff that nowadays regularly takes place in the UN Security Council. Specifically, she appears to have been trying to scare Russia into agreeing to the Western draft Resolution and to drop its own. Russia is most unlikely to let this kind of bluff intimidate it. Having already ruled the West’s draft Resolution out, it’d almost certainly persist in rejecting it. As for Trump’s comments, as the entirety of his words during the press conference show, he didn’t directly threaten unilateral US military action in Syria but made his comments when pressed to say by a journalist whether he was considering military action. He declined to give any concrete answer one way or the other, but the clear impression from his comments is that he isn’t contemplating it.
Overall, the impression President Trump’s news conference gave was that Trump’s focus remains overwhelmingly on fighting ISIS… he said far more about that than about the chemical attack in Syria… and that although he doesn’t want to give more ammunition to his domestic opponents by denying the Syrian government’s responsibility for the chemical attack, he tried to shift ultimate responsibility for the likely lack of a US reaction away from himself onto President Obama. Ultimately, the same factors that deterred a US military attack to lift the Syrian army’s siege of eastern Aleppo last autumn remain in place today. The Russian air defence system with its S400 and S300 SAMs is still in Syria. Last autumn, The US military made clear their deep reluctance to engage this system and nothing since has happened to change their views. More than any other US President in recent years, Trump looks to the US military for political support. It’s even less credible that he’d go against their advice than President Obama did. In light of all this, a unilateral US attack on the Syrian military on anything like the necessary scale to affect the course of the Syrian war is extremely unlikely.
6 April 2017