Missile strikes and deterrence in the Levant

Brian M Downing 

The US has twice fired missiles into Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons. A year ago, a unilateral US barrage of 59 ship-launched cruise missiles struck a military airbase. Last Friday, the US, Britain, and France fired twice that number, from both ships and aircraft, into facilities involved with chemical weapons. 

Neither strike was large. Each had the limited objective of inflicting a cost on Syria for using chemical weapons and deterring it from future use. The first strike clearly had no deterrent effect. The second may not either. Assad did not pay a big price and Putin paid less. The incentives to use chemical weapons are essentially intact. The only thing that’s diminished is the number of urban districts to use them on.

Limited strike

Friday’s strike was at the low end of the options presented here the previous day. Alternatives ranged from limited attacks on Syrian leadership and Iranian troops to attrition of Assad’s army and state.

Undoubtedly, many in the Trump administration wanted a firmer response, new national security chief John Bolton among them. The same can be said of the Israeli government which aims to wear down Iranian assets in Syria and wants American help. However, there was considerable opposition to stronger action. Defense chief Mattis pushed hard for a limited response, Britain and France do not share the Neocon/Likud agenda of punishing Iran, and concerns of a vigorous Russian response spread as the final decision neared. 

It’s important to note differing outlooks in Washington and its allies in London and Paris. Though common ground was in time reached, the divergence was almost certainly noted in Moscow, and it will shape its future actions.


Friday’s attack probably damaged Syria’s stores of chemical weapons and its ability to produce more. There’s no way of knowing, however, if new plants will come on line in short order. Chlorine weapons aren’t difficult to make and delivery requires nothing more sophisticated than a helicopter. 

Assad’s reasons for using chemical weapons have not changed. First, he wants to retake rebel-held urban districts with the least cost to his depleted army. Second, he wants to terrify the Sunni populace in order to make them docile subjects in his postwar rule. Third, he wants to drive out large numbers of Sunnis to make his more loyal Alawi-Shia population proportionately larger.  

Putin has an incentive to condone and even encourage more chemical attacks. They demonstrate his ability to challenge the world order and the US’s inability to uphold it. Further use may also deepen the divide between Washington and its chief allies who want to avoid a long, untidy campaign.

Israel and Saudi Arabia

The paucity of Friday’s strike disappointed Jerusalem and Riyadh. Netanyahu and bin Salman are deeply concerned by Iran’s presence in Syria and fearful that it will result in a powerful Syria in coming years. As unlikely as that is in so shattered a country, worst-case scenarios often become probable ones in the corridors of security bureaus.

Netanyahu and bin Salman undoubtedly pressed London and Paris for a harsher response including many Iranian targets. But Israel and Saudi Arabia have less influence in those capitals than in Washington. They will continue their pressure and Syria can expect many more strikes in coming months.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.

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