A little over a year ago, almost to the day, President Trump carried out a retaliatory missile strike against Syria’s Al Shayrat air force base in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians in Khan Shikhoun in Idlib Province.
Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad was obviously undeterred.
Since Trump’s strike, Assad has continued to act with impunity—deploying chlorine gas at least three subsequent times. The latest atrocity was reportedly ordered by Assad over the weekend in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma. This latest chemical carnage may have killed at least 42 civilians and injured scores more. The pictures emerging from Douma of the latest atrocity are gruesome.
In response to the chemical weapons attack President Trump tweeted over the weekend calling out Russia’s Putin by name—implicating Russia in Assad’s attack. A first for Trump.
At his Cabinet meeting yesterday, President Trump stated that he is reviewing options against Syria: “We cannot allow these atrocities…and nothing is off the table in the way of options,” Mr. Trump stated. Just days after the President stated he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the threat of a “big price” against Assad now looms even as Mr. Trump wants to wash his hands off Syria.
Apparently, no amount of international outcry will stop Assad from using any means he deems necessary to liquidate anyone left in the remaining rebel-controlled suburbs around Damascus—especially when he is enabled by Russia’s President Putin.
Consequently, is there any decisive action which the U.S. can take, either unilaterally or in concert with U.S. allies such as France, which will force Assad to desist in his use of chemical weapons?
Another cruise missile attack by the U.S. against a Syrian military base like the 2017 Al Shayrat military airfield is not going to cut it. It amounted to a mere slap on Assad’s wrist given his subsequent resort to more horrific chlorine gas attacks. Since the 2017 Tomahawk missile retaliation the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Assad’s forces killed another 42,000 civilians—including 375 by chemical weapons.
After last year’s retaliation a Pentagon spokesman told the New York Times that the attack on Al Shayrat air force base was “…at the more limited end of the military options presented by Secretary of Defense Mattis to Mr. Trump.”
So, what is on the other end of the spectrum of possible military options which would severely punish Assad that likely is under Presidential consideration? I do not know what the Pentagon may present to the President in the way of military options, but here is my own list of target recommendations that will hit Assad where it really hurts, yet avoiding to the maximum degree possible collateral damage and civilian casualties.
The Bassel al-Assad Joint Civilian/Military Damascus Airport. This is Assad’s major aviation link to the outside world. A concerted attack on its sole runway, aviation fuel farms, military and civilian aircraft hangars and joint control tower will take this airport out of commission for months—a very painful blow to Assad’s clique and supporters who are dependent on Damascus Airport for foreign travel and luxury imports. Ditto for Aleppo International Airport.
Latakia & Banyas Mediterranean Ports. Latakia—located in Assad’s Alouite redoubt—is Syria’s major seaport through which almost all of Assad’s essential imports pass. It is THE essential link for Assad’s Shiite supporters who live in and around Latakia Province, to the outside world, including the essential ferry connection to Cyprus. Taking out the berths, cranes, loading jetties and warehouses in Latakia and Banyas would cripple Assad’s ability to wage war and place a huge strain on Russia’s military seaport based of Tartus—forcing Assad to triage between military and essential civilian commodities at the sole operating port left for Syria. For good measure, I would add to this target rich environment the major road links in and out of both ports linking them to Damascus and Aleppo.
Syria’s Western Oil Pipeline Network. Ironically, after liquidating ISIS in the area, U.S. Special Forces and our Syrian Kurdish allies in Syria control the territory in Deir el-Zour Province where Syria’s major oil wells are located east of the Euphrates River. However, located between Damascus to the south and the city of Homs to the north lies the major gas and oil pipelines serving Damascus—readily identifiable by Google Earth. With his oil fields largely cut off from him—courtesy of the Americans for the time being, Assad is dependent on oil imports (and aviation fuel imports) through the Russian-controlled military seaport of Tartus. While not targeting the Russians in Tartus directly, the pipelines and tanker trucks lined up outside Tartus should be fair game.
Syria’s Missile Air Defenses. Last year, Russia formally linked Syrian and Russian air defense systems together, including its S-300 and S-400 long-range missile systems and its Pantsir-S1 short to medium range missile. The nexus of this air defense joint operation is located at the joint Russo-Syrian air force base located at Hmeymim air force base south of Latakia seaport. When Israel launched a massive retaliatory strike against Syrian air defense installations following an Iranian military drone incursion in February, Putin forced Israel to back down before it could finish destroying the remaining S-400 missiles based at Syria’s T-4 air force base near Palmyra and at other bases around Damascus. Syria’s Russian-controlled integrated air defense system—particularly those S-400’s—are an essential component of Assad’s military and are the backbone of Russia ability to keep Assad’s air force in the skies dropping those dreaded barrel bombs.
Undertake a “Reagan”Attack. On April 15, 1986 President Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in response to Col. Kadhaffi’s terrorist attack on the “La Belle” West Berlin nightclub. President Reagan targeted a good number of Libya’s military barracks and, for good measure, the U.S. air force dropped a bomb not too far away from Kadhaffi’s personal compound. The U.S. attack on Libya substantially ended Libya’s terrorism abroad. The challenge for President Trump is that all of Assad’s air bases are under joint Russian control (increasing the risk of Russian military casualties), but Syrian barracks are not under joint custody.
Since Trump has signaled an attack is imminent the broader strategic dilemma confronting the U.S. is NOT whether an escalated retaliation will deter Assad from resorting the chemical weapons. Rather, it is whether the President will be satisfied with a “big price” retaliatory attack, but then follow his impulse to withdraw American troops from Syria “within several months” as he declared, over the objections of his military advisers. And when, not if there is a retaliation what will Russia do against U.S. forces in Syria in response? Danger of a confrontation with Russian forces in Syria is a real possibility however the noble reasons may be for hitting Assad where it really hurts—especially since Putin warned Russia would not turn a blind eye to a further American intervention against Assad.
U.S. allies in the region, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, have appealed to Mr. Trump not to withdraw American forces. They know all too well that Assad is winning his civil war, and that as he consolidates his victory there will be no American boots on the ground in eastern Syria to prevent Iran’s recapture of Syria’s oil fields or deter the deployment of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops opposite Israel’s Golan Heights.
Once again, Assad has presented to the U.S. another bad chapter in the Syrian civil war where American tactical options are in search of a strategy.
About the author: Ambassador Marc Ginsberg is former White House Mid East Adviser & U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. He is currently Senior Global Adviser to the Counter Extremism Project.