Trump’s Syrian airstrikes: Use of force essential support to diplomacy
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Secretary of State Tillerson demonstrated in his trip to Moscow that the use of force to support U.S. diplomacy in Syria should not be interpreted as a one-off event. In his remarks at a press availability in Italy the day before meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov and later in a joint press event, Tillerson revealed a firmness in delivering the U.S. position to his Russian hosts as well as a resolute commitment to not allow himself to be baited in public. In calling the discussions with Putin “frank,” Tillerson was using classic “diplo-speak” for difficult and brutally honest conversations.   

Tillerson reaffirmed key elements of the U.S. policy with Russia on Syria: Washington seeks to partner with Moscow in defeating the Islamic State; the behavior of the Assad regime violates international norms; the solution to the Syrian conflict will be a political one; Assad and his family cannot be part of the eventual new political governance but elements of Syrian society have to have a place at the negotiating table for a lasting resolution.

Lavrov vainly tried to undermine the U.S. position on Assad’s use of banned chemical weapons and shift the focus to Moscow’s willingness to cooperate with Washington against terrorism. But a close reading of the text of the press events makes clear that Washington will pursue diplomatic engagement with a willingness to use force in support of diplomatic goals.

How force yields effective diplomacy is a problem that has bedeviled scholars and policymakers alike for years — giving rise to “coercive diplomacy.” President Trump’s decisive action to order airstrikes against Syria is his version of coercive diplomacy. He accomplished two stated goals: Trump punished Assad for violating norms stated in The Chemical Weapons Convention and reduced the capability of Assad to use chemical weapons again; he also sent a clear message that U.S. diplomacy will be backed up by use of force, where deemed appropriate.

The jury is out whether coercive diplomacy will change Syria’s behavior. If Assad believes cumulative costs may eventually erode domestic and international support for U.S. policy, he may test that policy. If so, how coercive diplomacy reinforces allies like Turkey and deters adversaries like Iran and Russia is an “unknown known.”


In their separate statements, President Trump, as well as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear they took military action to punish the Assad regime for violating international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Syria flaunted an agreement it had entered that Moscow and Washington brokered to eliminate all chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 and intensified outrage at the duplicitous conduct of Damascus.


Trump, Tillerson, and McMaster indicated the strikes do not portend a shift toward a military solution to the Syrian conflict or in U.S. policy toward Assad. Tillerson and McMaster said this course was not away from the U.S. commitment to a negotiated resolution, but a limited response to specific behavior by Assad. Though not a main goal of the airstrikes, U.S. actions showed allies, friends, and opponents how Trump conducts foreign policy — backing up diplomatic efforts with the use of force, when suitable.

As Dennis Ross stated, diplomacy often needs to be supported by a coercive element, and the U.S. military strike may give the Russians incentive they lacked for implementing principles they backed in the 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2235 and 2016 Resolution 2268: cessation of hostilities, end to sieges, unencumbered access for humanitarian assistance, and an 18-month period for political transition.

Now consider signals sent by the strike in relation to: zones of stability along the Turkish border, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and trip to Moscow this week.

In the press briefing joined by McMaster, Tillerson reiterated his positive attitude toward establishment of zones of stability in Syria. Unlike comments made by senior State department officials previewing his trip to Ankara, Tillerson did not suggest a zone in northern Syria along the border with Turkey, singling out the southern Syrian border with Jordan and the area around Raqqa as most likely options for such zones.
Turkish officials are likely to seek clarification of the location and extent the zones in northern Syria along or near its border.

Regarding additional support for anti-Assad forces, ponder Tillerson’s statement in the press briefing, “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There’s been no change in that status.” By repeating that defeating Islamic State remains the first goal of Trump, Tillerson sent a strong signal to the opposition they should not expect delivery of weapons sufficient to oust Assad through victory on the battlefield against his forces backed by Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah.

While admitting Assad has no long-term future as head of state in Syria, Tillerson has not completely backed away from openness to negotiations that may include representatives of Assad. Tillerson indicated a purely military resolution of the Syrian conflict is not possible. Negotiations will include representatives of Assad’s regime, as there is a political transition away from him. (But in response to a question, “So will you and President Trump organize an international coalition to remove Assad? Tillerson replied, “Those steps are underway.”).

It is noteworthy that members of the IRGC might have been killed during the U.S. airstrike against Syria. IRGC units have been known to be on the Syrian base. Besides Moscow, Tehran is Assad’s only other major foreign backer. Iran strongly condemned the U.S. strike on the Shayrat airfield, saying “unilateral action is dangerous, destructive and violates the principles of international law.” Iran is one of the biggest supporters of Assad. The IRGC is deeply involved in the war, as is the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

Indeed, U.S. Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf view Syria as a proxy conflict between our Arab friends and Iran—one aspect of this complicated conflict. Designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization would reassure our allies in the Gulf that we stand with them.

Tillerson's Russia visit and it's outcomes will test the argument that willingness to use force contributes to effective diplomacy. For sure, Putin wants to maintain use of Russian air and naval facilities in Syria, but if Moscow could arrange that access without Assad or his cronies remaining as partners, Putin might welcome the opportunity to preserve Russia’s vital interests in Syria without being painted as an enabler of a person who is subject to prosecution as a war criminal.

Keeping the door open to negotiations with Moscow also allows for removal or at least reduction of Iranian influence in a negotiated resolution of the Syrian conflict. Realizing the goal of ending the IRGC role in Syria requires effective U.S. diplomacy, that is, diplomacy backed by readiness to use force. Any chance of reanimating the Geneva Talks as the locus of Syrian negotiations, instead of the Astana, Kazakhstan process, and thereby diminishing Tehran’s role in a negotiated settlement, also demands robust U.S. diplomatic efforts under Trump. Such approach would include a readiness to use force in pursuit of vital U.S. interests and protection of allies.

In sum, Washington has signaled its readiness to use force in support of its diplomacy, as Ambassador Nikki Haley so eloquently said at the UN Security Council meeting she chaired on April 7.

Dr. Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Edward Stafford is a retired Foreign Service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.