President Trump is rattling the sabres. Tweeting that missiles, “nice and new and smart”, would be incoming to Syria.
The Russians, not being idiots, take the threat seriously enough that they have put their Syrian fleet – based at Tartus – out to sea. No point in restaging Pearl Harbour.
Hitting Assad and his Iranian allies is certainly something the Americans might want to do in the wake of yet another gas attack. But a missile barrage, even with shiny, new, smart missiles is not likely to do much other than annoy the Russians without defeating them. Is that worthwhile?
I don’t think much of Trump as a tactical thinker, he is more a limited strategic thinker able to identify “bad guys” and “America’s interests” without having any great insight into what to actually do. However, there are plenty of people in and around the White House who can figure out the tactics beginning with Defence Secretary Mathias. Mad Dog is not really a “fire and forget” kinda of guy.
The trouble with a missile barrage is that it really changes nothing. Some targets are obliterated, some low-level bad guys are killed. Its principal advantage is that it poses very little risk to American personnel. Tactically, a missile attack runs a small risk of interception by the Russian made air defences which are presently in Syria and taking out those defences ups the chances of escalation. But strategically, a pure missile attack is not going to move any needles.
Which is why, I suspect, Trump is tweeting about it. Telegraphing an attack is something Trump maintained he would not do. He likes secrecy when American forces are going into harm’s way. Trump haters will say Trump is incapable of keeping quiet but I don’t think they are right. Trump is making characteristically Trumpian noises and I suspect it is misdirection. If you are Secretary Mathias you know that you have a President who likes nothing more than to shake his tweeting fist. Why not use it?
The Americans are perfectly capable of inflicting real damage on the Syrians – and more importantly, the Iranians – but it will not be by means of shock and awe tactics. Special Forces, stealth munitions and precision artillery with down range spotters can have a devastating effect on people expecting an attack from a bunch of missiles. It is a more personal sort of warfare and it puts American troops at risk; but it would send a very clear message to the Syrians, the Iranians and their Russian backers. “We are willing to fight and fight smart.” A much more compelling message than a very expensive fireworks display.
At the same time, a very blunt message needs to be delivered to the Russians. “You need to leave Syria.” That message is only partially military – although silently taking out several of the S-400 air defence sites would underscore the message – its real thrust needs to be diplomatic and economic. As an economy, Russia is not doing very well in a world of inexpensive oil. Sanctions, plus accelerating the pace of LNG deliveries to Europe would hurt. So would leaning on the assorted oligarchs who prefer to live in the West while retaining Russian citizenship. Scouting around for Russian assets to sequester would also add to the pressure. Critically, the US needs to be very clear about what it wants.
I would think the ask would be along the lines of “Get out of Syria and support us in the sanctions we are about to drop on Iran.”
Get all that done and the US and its allies will not have to fire a single, nice and new and smart missile.