Drawing a Line, or Just Sending a Signal? America Strikes the Syrian Government

Following the deaths of 87 people in a Syrian government attack that appears to have been conducted using sarin nerve gas, the United States launched an attack on the Syrian government airfield from which the attack came. This is the first time that the United States has directly attacked Syrian government installations in the Syrian Civil War.

The attack lightly damaged the air base, which resumed bombing the rebel held city of Khan Sheikhoun within 24-hours of the US attack. Despite its relatively small military impact, the symbolic impact is much more powerful.

International relations is a realm of uncertainty. Political leaders never really know what other political leaders are going to do. When the leadership of a state changes, it can be very difficult for other leaders to know what the new leadership will do. When the leadership has made vague and contradictory statements (which often happens in democratic elections) the uncertainty is multiplied. In the case of the, still new, Trump administration, uncertainty has been higher than usual.

Regardless of any other aspects of the strike, this action is a powerful signal that the powerful reluctance to use force against nation-state actors of the Obama years is not how the Trump administration sees the world. The Obama administration used American air power to pummel non-state groups around the world, including a massive increase in drone strikes, but had gone to great lengths to avoid attacking nation-states.

While the attack was a signal, and a costly one (the Tomahawk missiles are over $1 million each), it leaves a great deal of additional uncertainty. Given the limited nature of the strike, it is not clear to what extent American policy will actually change. With the death toll in the Syrian Civil War about to cross the half-million mark, the message appears to be that killing with conventional weapons is fine, but killing with chemical weapons is not.

In the complex world of great power politics, the strike may have more value than anything related to Syria. It was a clear signal to Russia that American wiliness to accept a Russian client state’s massacres was limited. Taking place during the visit of the Chinese president, the strike also sent a powerful signal that the Trump administration may also be willing to be more forceful with other rogue states, such at North Korea.

As the days and weeks unfold, the picture of what the strikes mean in the big picture will become clearer. Diplomats and public relations officers will clarify and expand on the US position. The responses of the other major powers will show how they respond. And the great game will continue.

For the families of the dead in Khan Sheikhoun it will be little solace, but they can at least take some comfort in knowing that there are red lines to restrain the Syrian government from the worst of the worst kinds of behaviors.



  1. Signaling is one way that nation-states communicate, but it still leaves uncertainty. Does the use of military force to send costly signals create more danger than sending signals through other means such as economic sanctions? Or is the use of force simply the extension of policy by other means?
  2. Does the value of the signal that the US sent with this strike depend on what is done by diplomacy in the weeks and months that follow?
  3. The Civil War in Syria is a complicated mix of actors engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with the great powers engaged working on very different missions in the region. Does a renewed American willingness to use force against the Syrian government improve the prospects for an end to the overall conflict?