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Assessing the aftermath of U.S. airstrikes in Syria

April 8, 2017 at 4:56 PM EDT
Syrian officials on Saturday surveyed the damage caused by recent U.S. military strikes on a government airfield that were in retaliation to a chemical attack on Syrian civilians. American officials also threatened new sanctions against the country. For more on the situation in Syria and the U.S. military's role there, New America fellow Doug Ollivant and political science professor at Columbia University Kimberly Marten join Hari Sreenivasan.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: To discuss the situation in Syria, the U.S. military role there and throughout the region, I’m joined by Doug Ollivant from New America in Washington; and Kimberly Marten from Columbia University here in New York.

Doug, I want to start with you. If this was a one-off incident, how consequential is it?

DOUG OLLIVANT, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Well, if it’s a one-off that is designed with the strategic purpose of informing not just Syria, but all regimes that the United States has a zero tolerance policy on the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, then it’s making that point. But in terms of the Syrian civil war itself and U.S. policy in the Middle East, probably very little

SREENIVASAN: Kimberly Marten, the concern that everybody has now is not just necessarily what Syria’s response, but what’s big brother, Russia’s, response.

KIMBERLY MARTEN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, I think it’s not going to be as bad as some people have been predicting. I think Russia must have been very embarrassed by Syria’s use of chemical weapons because it really undercut Putin’s role back in 2013 in saying he had helped get rid of Syria’s weapons. And what’s truly striking is that Russia got an hour of advance notice of the strike, and there were no Russians killed and there were no Russian helicopters hit, but there were Syrian soldiers killed and there were Syrian airplanes hit.

And I think that might be an indication that Russia didn’t tell Syria that the strike was coming.

SREENIVASAN: Wow.

Doug, what about that? Is there enough daylight between Syria and Russia there, at least on this specific issue, considering how geographically important Syria is to Russia’s military presence in the Middle East?

OLLIVANT: Well, certainly, in the larger picture, Syria’s very important to Russia, much more important than it is to us and, therefore, they’re very vested. But I really agree with Kimberly’s analysis. The Russians had to be embarrassed by this.

It’s really hard for me to get my head inside the logic of the Syrian regime, why they would do this, why they would provoke the international community, embarrass their patrons, the Russians? This seems to make no sense to me. And I totally agree with Kimberly. It’s not at all beyond the Russians to let them feel the brunt of this attack so that they don’t do something like that again

SREENIVASAN: Rex Tillerson is supposed to go to Moscow next week. How does that conversation go?

MARTEN: Well, you know, Putin is somebody who really respects strength, and I think this might have been quite intentional as a way of showing Russia and showing Putin, in particular, that President Trump is not going to take lying down whatever it is that Russia does in the Middle East. And we have to be concerned that Russia is also increasing its military influence in Egypt, potentially in Libya, also in Afghanistan.

And so, I think a message of strength here in Syria is something that might actually benefits Tillerson in getting a good deal in Moscow

SREENIVASAN: Doug, what about that influence that Russia has been increasing throughout the Middle East?

OLLIVANT: Well, as Kimberly pointed out, it has — if not have a strong relationship with the three countries she mentioned, with Afghanistan, with Libya, with Egypt, it’s certainly trying to extend tentacles into those regimes. It’s not the same kind of relationship they have with Syria, but certainly, they’re starting to expand their influence in the region.

I still maintain this strike was much more about chemical weapons than about the Syrian civil war or Russian influence or anything else. But if the Russians are willing to take away a message of U.S. strength from this, I certainly have no problem with that

SREENIVASAN: Kimberly, this wasn’t an issue about sort of U.S. versus Russia, more specific not even about regime change, but really specifically about chemical weapons.

MARTEN: Yes, it was. It did follow a day of discussion in the U.N. Security Council about what had happened in Syria, and so it wasn’t out of the blue. It was clear that there would nothing a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Syria because Syria is Russia’s ally, and Russia has a veto in the U.N. Security Council. But least there was an attempt made to get the international community thinking about this. And in fact, what we see is that the majority of U.S. allies are on board behind what the U.S. did

SREENIVASAN: There was also talk that the treasury secretary said we were going to impose new economic sanctions on Syria.

Doug, is that going to have any more of an impact?

OLLIVANT: They’re pretty isolated now, so I’m not sure how much more impact this will actually have in tangible terms, but as a symbolic gesture of, again, we’re not just going to punish the poor pilots on the ground who were on the receiving end of the missiles, but the regime actors themselves who are responsible for this strategic decision that, again, sends a very, very strong message.

And, again, I suspect the people this is aimed at peripherally are not so much other players in the area but the North Koreans and maybe also the Iranians. This is a WMD message

SREENIVASAN: We’ve talked quite a bit about Syria and it’s by no means the only country in the Middle East and South Asia, where the U.S. is actively engaged. There’s Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been at war since 2001, and the spillover against Islamic militants based in Pakistan. There are still 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq where the war to topple Saddam Hussein began in 2003 and there are conflicts in Somalia and Yemen, where the Trump administration is escalating the U.S. presence, aiding one side or other.

So, Doug, thinking about this in the regional context, does this change the equation of at least how the actors in these places see the role of the United States?

OLLIVANT: Well, talking to my friends in the region, it sounds like the — the leaders in Middle East are thrilled to see this. They’re thrilled to see a strong Trump administration. The Middle East, most of these regimes were notably not happy with the last administration. Some of them were very happy to see this new administration, and they’re happy to see this show of strength.

But I think in terms of trying to apply this to all the places we’re engaged in the region, these are all very, very different. You know, the Iraq fight against ISIS is going very well. We can fairly be said to be winning there. Afghanistan is going much more poorly. In Yemen, we’re largely just supporting the Saudis.

These are all individual fights we kind of have to take one at a time.

SREENIVASAN: Kimberly Marten, does this change Russia’s thinking about the fact that the United States is willing to use force in specific instances, especially when they’re thinking about expanding geographically or other decisions that they’ve already made?

MARTEN: I think it might be sending a message that there are limits, you know? There doesn’t seem to be evidence that this is going to become a new U.S. military presence that has any kind of a permanent basis. And so, I don’t think that we’re necessarily going to see the U.S. and Russia becoming out and out military competitors against each other. But I think it does send a message that there are limits, and that if Russia says that it has these allies that are its client states, it’d better be able to control what they do

SREENIVASAN: All right. Kimberly Marten, Doug Ollivant — thank you both.

MARTEN: Thank you.

OLLIVANT: Pleasure, Hari.

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