The fine line of meeting US objectives in Syria without risking nuclear war

The fine line of meeting US objectives in Syria without risking nuclear war
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“Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is still difficult.” — Carl von Clausewitz, On War

With Russia’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s latest use of chemical weapons, the United States no longer has any meaningful legal alternative to direct attacks upon Bashar al-Assad's vulnerable military assets. This is because our decentralized system of international law still generally requires “self-help” responses from major world powers. In this particular case, the United States is fully obligated under both the United Nations Charter and Genocide Convention to punish Syrian crimes of war and crimes against humanity.

These imperative responses could take the tactical form of certain singular U.S. reprisals, or of more collaborative, alliance-based attacks.


Whatever path is selected, the actual use of armed forces must remain consistent with the controlling law of war or humanitarian international law. More specifically, it always must be discriminate, proportionate and determinably within the recognizable bounds of military necessity.


But the key issues facing the United States in Syria are not narrowly legal ones. Rather, they concern our meeting both military and legal objectives without simultaneously being caught up in a nuclear war. Although it might first seem that any such prudence is best left to the “experts,” there are no experts on the subject of nuclear war — whether inadvertent or deliberate. To wit, in mathematics and science, true probability estimates must always rest upon the discoverable frequency of pertinent past events.

There are literally no previous examples of a nuclear war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not examples of a nuclear war, but “only” of unilateral nuclear weapons use against expressly civilian targets in a wholly conventional war against a plainly non-nuclear adversary.

Syria is another story altogether. Here, it is entirely possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliberately deploy Russian soldiers to some of those areas likely to be targeted by the United States. In the aptly technical language of nuclear deterrence theory, any such deployment would be known as a “tripwire.” Correspondingly, the real purpose of these Russian troops would not be to fight against the Americans but, rather, to “trip” certain further escalations with the United States. It’s not that Putin would welcome any such escalation but, instead, that he would expect this deployment to augment and strengthen his overall deterrence posture in the region.

As per Putin’s expected calculations, such deployment would be presumptively “cost-effective.”

To be sure, it would represent a substantial gamble, one that could quickly escalate out of control toward either an inadvertent or, in the murky later stages, a deliberate nuclear war. Further to what we now know about ascertainable probabilities in such unprecedented circumstances, there is no reliable way to figure out exactly, or even “probably,” how it would all end. This sobering inconclusiveness should be viewed as cautionary — a red flag — for both Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump.

As for the Russian soldiers (remember them?), their only real function in such an inherently ambiguous scenario would be to die. They could serve no other more orthodox military function.

Where should President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE and the United States go now? Insofar as Trump has announced an irrevocable decision to use armed force — in part because he has no properly accessible diplomatic assets in an effectively leaderless Department of State — the president’s operational choices are readily foreseeable in Moscow.

Precluding his earlier vaunted “element of surprise,” President Trump’s residual policy options could lead inexorably to a direct U.S.-Russian military encounter. Among other “simple” things, the president’s most capable strategic thinkers (not tactical military planners) will need to work very quickly through the unimaginably complex dialectics of virtually all possible nuclear scenarios and outcomes.

Can they possibly manage such staggering calculations in the total absence of historical experience or precedent?

In essence, what is needed here will be utterly exceptional intellectual skills, not in lieu of the usual operational talents but in addition to them. Moreover, these complementary intellectual expectations would need to be satisfied prior to any actual U.S.-Russian engagements, and not anterior to them. Can Mr. Trump succeed at this very demanding level of analytic calculation? However we choose to answer, we need to bear one overarching thought in mind at all times: Potentially, we are betting the Republic on a successful outcome.

Dr. Louis René Beres is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His newest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)