Signalling Intent: The US Airstrikes Against Syria

Posted by es328 at Apr 07, 2017 09:45 AM |
Dr Rob Dover, Associate Professor in Intelligence and International Security, discusses the impact of US airstrikes in Syria

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2017 has seen two breaches of the universally accepted prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The death of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in Malaysia was both attributed to VX nerve agent (an exceptionally toxic chemical), and the fault of the North Korean regime. The use of Sarin gas in Syria has been attributed to government forces, with only half-hearted denials and deflections on to the possibility that government forces had hit a rebel stockpile of the gas: something that would have rendered the stockpile inert. So, whilst these two cases are horrific and jarring in their use of these banned agents, it is the signalling that comes from them and the responses to them that are the fascinating and yet hazardous lessons to be drawn from them.

If it was the North Korean government who used VX in Malaysia, their signal was to the world that a) they have a viable stock of this particularly unpleasant weaponisable chemical and b) they were prepared and able to use it in an urban setting abroad. That is a signal to all their potential enemies, particularly South Korea, Japan and the United States that they are prepared to fight with the gloves off. It may also be a signal that the regime feels particularly vulnerable at the moment, wrapped into a self-reinforcing cycle of extreme show of force and paranoia that is a path of escalation to a viable inter-continental nuclear weapon.

The use of Sarin gas by Syrian government forces is a less clear signal. There does not appear to have been any clear strategic or military need to use this kind of weapon in Khan Shaikhun and so it is difficult to understand why they were used. But the signalling has been strong from those outside of Syria since. Russian government proxies took to the airwaves yesterday to say that the attack - if it was by Syrian forces - left the Russian government in an embarrassing position, a subtle signal that they did not approve of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. That in turn may have made it politically possible for the US President to draw a line in the sand, a line that his predecessor flinched at three years ago. The signalling from Trump is bold and stark. In not seeking Congressional or international support he was actually able to produce military surprise (something that had seemed consigned to the dustbin of history for military interactions in the modern era), and consequently may have generated real military effect.

The effect of the US cruise missiles attack was intended to strike fear in the soul of the North Koreans too: you won’t get a warning before we strike. This is a particularly powerful gambit when the Chinese President is in America - he will know Trump means it when he says he has had enough of the North Korean posturing and threats. It is - shocking to say - a good bit of politics by Mr Trump.

It was also important to signal that the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons means something. To have allowed the Syrian forces to use them again, without punishment, renders them usable in the field. So, it could not go unanswered, and there does need to be a high cost for their usage. The vacillations around not wanting to antagonise the Russians is fine as it goes, but they do not seem to have factored in antagonising the Americans into their strategic assessment: but they might do now. If that were to be the case it would not be a poor outcome either.

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