The U.S. acted quickly and decisively in response to a chemical attack by the Syrian Air Force on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province, enforcing the previously-unenforced “red line” by bombing the air base used. But any military action risks unintended consequences.
The evidence proving that the Assad regime was responsible was strong enough to convince President Trump to take action. His skepticism of the intelligence community is well-known, as is his intense aversion to military intervention in other country’s affairs. Trump’s turnaround was particularly surprising given his opposition to overthrowing Assad and his secretary of state’s comment that the U.S. would not seek his removal from power.
The strike using cruise missiles was decisive but humane, minimal and handled carefully. Russia was warned beforehand so that its personnel would not be harmed. The administration even said it took measures to minimize harm to the Assad regime’s personnel. The objective was to destroy a base and deter Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons again, not to kill people—even those who committed the chemical attack.
The mission was a success, though only time will tell if the objective of the strike was achieved. Here are four risks going forward:
- Regime implosion
The strike could cause those around Assad to defect, fearing strikes that will end their lives. It is possible that the regime will fracture and, if pressure increases, someone could kill Assad or try to launch a coup that furthers instability.Orderly removing Assad and his innermost circle is desirable, but the complete removal of the regime (or its implosion) would only expand the horrors of the civil war to greater territory. Jihadists would fill the power vacuum and genocide against the Alawites and Christians in regime-controlled territory would follow. And, in all of that chaos, the weapons—potentially including the chemical weapons—would go loose.
The Trump Administration says it is taking steps to form an international coalition to force Assad from power but through a “political process.” The statement was not referring to international military action or violently uprooting the regime.
- Iran Sponsors a Terror Attack
The airbase the U.S. destroyed was used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Some sources are reporting that Hezbollah suffered casualties in the attack. The Assad regime could conceivably respond overtly, such as by launching attacks on the U.S. military presence in the region, but that would only bring harsher military actions. It is more likely that the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies will plan a terrorist attack. Bahrain recently claimed it foiled an Iranian-sponsored attack on the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters stationed there.
- Attacks on the U.S. military in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
U.S. forces are obviously on high-alert for good reason. In Syria, U.S. special forces could be bombed by the Russian-Iranian-Assad coalition, as Russia has bombed U.S.-backed rebels before. In Iran, there are plenty of Iranian-backed militias who could do the job. In Afghanistan, both Iran and Russia are supporting the Taliban.Iranian-backed extremists may choose to attack independently, even without authorization from the Iranian regime, if they know they have an opportunity to retaliate.
- Russia’s Response
Russia will obviously be furious, but the Russian government has suggested that it is not immovably behind Assad. It may just be positioning, but Russia has claimed that its position on Assad remaining in power could change as long as its interests are protected.While there is some possibility that Russia will try to restrain Assad now, never forget about Putin’s outrageous ego. Trump just defied Putin on a very important issue of contention and Secretary of State Tillerson essentially blamed Russia for the chemical attack and U.S. response by failing to disarm Assad.
Russia could respond by massively bombing U.S.-backed rebels in Syria, arming Iran and the Taliban or launching cyber attacks on the U.S. Russia could try to shoot down an American aircraft, but those aircraft are targeting ISIS, not Assad.
One thing is for sure: President Trump sent the message to the world that he’s prepared to act quickly and decisively. He showed that his words are credible and that his anti-interventionist message should not be mistaken for isolationism.
Unfortunately, in all wars, unexpected things happen. Something always goes wrong, even in the best of scenarios. This story isn’t over yet.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. To invite Ryan to speak please contact us.