Trump’s War in Syria: What You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

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A Tomahawk missile is launched from a Navy Cruiser in the Persian Gulf (U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons photo)

President Trump announced Thursday night that the United States conducted a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government earlier this week.

The U.S. Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting aircraft at al-Sharyat airbase in Homs province from destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian forces are stationed on the base, but U.S. officials said they used established deconfliction channels to notify them beforehand.

Cruise missiles have a range of 1,000 miles and typically carry a 1,000 lb. warhead. A staple of U.S. military unmanned strike capability, cruise missiles have been used since the 1991 Gulf War. They were utilized by former President Bill Clinton who famously used them to strike at al-Qaida in Afghanistan in Sudan prior to the attack on September 11th, 2001.

Most recently, cruise missiles were used to attack targets in Yemen after Houthi rebels launched missiles at U.S. Navy ships supporting the Saudi-led war there.

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Aftermath of an air strike in Sana’a, Yemen (Ibrahem Qasim/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The missile strike in Syria was launched at roughly 8:40 PM Eastern time or 4:40 AM local time. It came hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced “steps are underway” to build an international coalition to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The announcement marked a major shift in U.S. policy in Syria, where the U.S. has spent two and a half years combatting Islamic State (IS, also know as ISIS or ISIL), but has not struck Syrian government targets (on purpose—in September Syrian troops were killed in a U.S. airstrike it deemed “unintentional”).

Is the U.S. going to war in Syria?

The U.S. has been at war in Syria since September, 2014 when it conducted its first airstrikes against IS in response to the videoed and widely-seen assassinations of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Thursday’s missile strike represents and expansion and escalation of the war, authorized under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force to target al-Qaida.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria (AFP/Getty photo)

If Trump continues to strike Syrian government targets, he will need a new Congressional authorization. The War Powers Act of 1973 limits military force to 60 days without Congressional approval.

However, former President Barack Obama continued military operations in Libya far past the 60 day limit by claiming “operations did not involve sustained fighting.”

Will the U.S. send ground troops?

Ground troops, typically defined as non-Special Operations Forces (SOF) in country, have already been in Syria for a month. U.S. Army Rangers (highly-trained shock troops originally intended to seize airfields) and a Marine artillery unit were deployed to Northeast Syria to support continuing operations against IS near Raqqa.

These forces combined with existing SOF such as Navy SEALs and Army CAG (also known as Delta Force) total almost 1000 American military personnel currently in Syria.

The U.S. has possibly two military bases already established in Syria. One at Rmeilan airfield and another near Ain Eissa, both in Kurdish-controlled areas.

What would an American-Led Operation to Remove Assad Look Like?

It is difficult to predict what regime change might look like or if it will even happen. We can compare the last three successful government-toppling actions in the greater Middle East for context, though.

In 2001, the U.S. sent a small contingent of C.I.A. operatives, Special Operations Forces including Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government in Kabul while simultaneously hunting al-Qaida.

With the support of the Northern Alliance, local forces already fighting the Taliban, Kabul was captured in roughly a month, but al-Qaida leadership slipped through the U.S.’s fingers.

Today, the U.S. is still hunting al-Qaida and fighting the Taliban for control of territory in Afghanistan.

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with 150,000 troops in a multinational coalition after a heavy bombing campaign striking government targets in Baghdad and military bases throughout the country.

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U.S. tanks in Baghdad, 2003 (Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons photo)

Baghdad fell in just months and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured within the year.

U.S. troops completely withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014. Today, there are over 5,000 troops supporting the operation to defeat an insurgent group created in the chaos after the 2003 invasion.

In contrast to the colossal Iraq invasion, in 2011 the United States supported a NATO air operation to depose Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. provided support to European airstrikes protecting rebels and targeting the Libyan government.

Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces in 7 months. Today, Libya continues to fight a multi-factional civil war. U.S. bombers continued to conduct airstrikes in Libya this year.

Whatever may come, Thursday’s events did not mark the beginning of an American war. The U.S. has been at war toppling multiple governments in the Middle East for nearly 16 years. Killing a Middle Eastern head of state and destroying the government of that country has become the specialty of the U.S. this century. Repairing what it has broken has proven challenging and burdensome.

A Post-Syria Middle East

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Update: The Department of Defense’s Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson answered a direct question about Rmeilan Airfield on Reddit, tacitly acknowledging that it is being used by special operations forces:

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A recent article about a purported American deal to use an airbase in Syria to support operations against Islamic State (IS) struck me as odd. It was not that the United States was further establishing a military presence in the war-torn Middle East — let’s face it, it is 2016 and this the norm — but rather who the agreement was made with: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, whom I have written about before (specifically their capacity to recruit American volunteer fighters), have controlled the territory in northeast Syria where Rmeilan airfield is located for over two years. If the claim that the Americans are using the airfield is true (a spokesman for United States Central Command has denied it, despite some evidence to the contrary), this represents a significant step in the end of the state we know to be Syria.

What is a state?

To discuss this concept, the state must be defined. The classical definition of the state in the field of international relations usually starts with sociologist Max Weber, who wrote in 1919 that the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

Additionally, the declarative theory of statehood adds that a state must have:

  1. Defined territory
  2. Permanent population
  3. Government
  4. Ability to enter into relations with other states, or thus be recognized by other states
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Sociologist Max Weber dropping some knowledge, 1917 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

When we combine these two definitions, it is apparent that Syria is struggling as a state — particularly when it comes to the monopoly on violence and defined territory.  But what makes the question of Syria as a state interesting is the other actors that have popped up inside what was once Syrian sovereign territory and how they have started to check the boxes for statehood. Prominently, groups like the YPG and IS are beginning to look like states.

Kurds and the Rojava state

The YPG controls most of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the Weberian sense, the YPG looks like a state — they have successfully monopolized the legitimate use of violence within their territory. Though there has been active warfare over the last two years or so, in the opinion of the permanent population of Kurds that live there, it is for the most part the YPG who are the legitimate doorkeepers to the use of violence (not, for example, Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra).

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Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Syria, November 30, 2013. The sign reads “YPG in every place, YPG eyes do not sleep”. (REUTERS/Rodi Said photo)

However, a monopoly on violence and territory are not the only requirements. The YPG’s Kurdistan must also have a government. In fact, the YPG has established a government: an autonomous area called “Rojava” (West in Kurdish) with four established cantons and a democratic constitution.

The last and most crucial ingredient to statehood is the ability to enter relations with other states. Therefore, if the YPG has made an agreement with the US government to allow the use of an airfield, then Rojava has made an important step toward an eventual statehood.

Islamic Statehood in Iraq and al-Sham

But if the YPG are fulfilling some of the requirements to being recognized as a state, what about IS? After all, “state” is right in their name (by design!) Well, despite the name, there are many who would argue that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. As the former would require another post (or book) entirely, I will only be focusing on the “state” aspect.

“Islamic State reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

IS has been effective in brutally enforcing the monopolization of violence. On the one hand IS must continue to fight and win to attract foreign fighters, thus as long as they continue to win, they can claim legitimacy in the simplest “might makes right” terms. But while immigrants to Islamic State-held territory are pre-convinced of IS sovereignty, surely not all of their permanent population recognizes IS’s legitimate violence monopoly.

In this case, I do not think that some contention from their population delegitimizes the claim of statehood. After all, in the United States, an armed militia recently occupied federal lands. In response the FBI shot and killed one of the militiamen and arrested the others. By winning and eliminating the troublemakers, the US retains its legitimate monopoly of violence. IS reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The ability of IS to actually govern has been widely covered. Much like Hizbullah or Hamas, IS does provide services to its population via bureaucratic institutions. But what about the most important element to statehood? Officially, IS is not recognized by any other state. IS can call itself a state all it wants, but until another state acknowledges them as one, they are not in the club. This is not for lack of trying, however. In a recent video, IS recognized Taiwan — perhaps hoping to get a return scratch on the back.

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Islamic State literally destroying the border between Iraq and Syria in a figurative gesture (IS social media photo)

Curiously, a major source of IS revenue is oil sales. Yet if no state has recognized IS, then who is buying their oil? (Assad, actually, among others.) This implies that IS does actually have some sort of de facto recognition from the international community and demonstrates that they do have some ability to enter in relations with other states. For the time being, it appears they can only do so discreetly.

The end of the Syrian state

While the YPG’s Rojava and Islamic State cannot be considered full-fledged states yet, they are certainly on their way. The current state of their existence has delegitimized Syria to a point that the Syria we knew before 2011 has ceased to exist — probably forever. We have seen that various actors in Syria have started to fit the classical definition of the state: monopolizing violence, controlling territory, having a population, and governing. As the global community begins or continues to enter into relations with these actors, new states may form and we will have finally stepped fully into a post-Syria Middle East.


Update: I did eventually write another post on how Islamic IS is. You can read it here.