'Nice, new and smart': Five ways the Syrian strike could unfold

It is not clear what the Trump plan is in Syria.

US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC April 9, 2018.  (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC April 9, 2018.
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
On Sunday, US President Donald Trump accused Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad of carrying out a chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Trump condemns Syria chemical attack, vows quick action, April 9, 2018 (Reuters) 
He accused Iran and Russia of responsibility for supporting the regime and said there would be a “big price” to pay.
On Wednesday he vowed to send “nice and new and ‘smart’” missiles to strike Syria, despite Russian vows to shoot them down.
What will the big price and missile strikes look like, if they materialize? Trump said on Monday he would make a decision within 48 hours. US Ambassador Nikki Haley went to the UN to call for “justice” to be done. But Russia vetoed any action on Tuesday. Now the ball is in Washington’s court. Here are five ways that Washington’s desire to move the ball forward could unfold.
Wider international coalition
The US has reached out to the UK, Saudi Arabia and France. Theresa May phoned Trump and Emmanuel Macron, according to the BBC, and said Syria’s regime must be “held to account.” The UK has indicated support for strikes before, in April 2017 and again in February of this year.
London is in the midst of a major row with Russia over the poisoning of a former agent in March that has led to the expulsion of scores of Russian diplomats from Western countries.
Anger over Russia’s support of Assad therefore galvanizes the possibility for a wider international response. But EU states are more apt to make diplomatic threats than to do anything. There doesn’t seem to be widespread agreement among publics in Europe for a war. In the UK many are still skeptical about why the country supported George W.
Bush’s war in 2003 in Iraq. Figures such as Tony Blair are controversial because of it. There is rising support for leaders on the Left like Jeremy Corbyn who have been very critical of any military involvement and whose milieu has excused Russia’s actions in the past.
To gather together a wider international coalition, Trump would need to do more. He would need to reach out and speak to people and put together a military plan. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that happening. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia, which has been reaching out to the US with a major royal trip recently, wants favor in Washington and would like to say it is doing something alongside Trump. So any talk of a larger coalition may end up just being talk.
All options are on the table
The Los Angeles Times reports that officials said “manned bomber and other warplanes” could be used in an attack, alongside naval-based cruise missile strikes.
During a major battle in February pro-regime forces, including Russian contractors, attacked US partners known as the Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. The SDF called in air support and, according to reports and comments from Lt.-Gen. Jeff Harrigan, commander of US Air Forces Central Command, a massive array of air power was sent to crush the attack. This included F-15Es, F-22s, M1-9 (Reaper) drones, B-52s, AC-130s and AH-64 Apache helicopters. These air assets are based in different places in the region within range of Syria, including in the Persian Gulf.
Besides the air component and the naval-based cruise missiles, the US also has a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which, according to a June 2017 CNN report, was deployed to a coalition base in southern Syria. This rocket artillery system can fire projectiles up to 300 kilometers. The US has smaller howitzers in eastern Syria as well within range of pro-regime forces.
When the US says “all options are on the table,” as administration officials indicated on Monday, there is no shortage of weapons they can draw on, many of which have seen action against ISIS in the last four years. These are the most precise weapons ever employed in war, using the latest technology. Many of them also give the US the ability to avoid Syrian air defenses, which were reportedly degraded by Israeli strikes in February. The Russians have their own air defenses, such as S-400 ground-to-air missiles, in Syria. They reportedly based Su-57s, a hi-tech stealth fighter, in Syria in February.
Another limited strike
The USS Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, is somewhere off the coast of Syria, having left Larnaca, Cyprus, on Monday. Last year the US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria from the USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean. Those ships are now in the North Atlantic. The Porter is reportedly on the way to join the USS Donald Cook. They have similar capabilities. But that is just two ships which reportedly have only around 50-100 cruise missiles together. There are also other ships from the US Sixth Fleet, including submarines in the Mediterranean, which could take part in a strike.
The effect of the April 2017 strike by cruise missiles was limited. It didn’t seem to have weakened Assad’s capabilities or made Assad feel the “justice” that Trump and Haley indicate is coming. However, a limited strike may be in the offing if Trump climbs down from his threats. A major raid on his lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen this week has ruffled Trump’s feathers and caused him to be distracted from Syria.
But his Wednesday tweets indicate missiles are on the way.
More Naval assets
The USS Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group left Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, departing for the Middle East on Wednesday. According to Stars and Stripes, it is escorted by the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy and guided-missile destroyers USS Arleigh Burke, USS Bulkeley, USS Forrest Sherman and USS Farragut.
It will take the ships and their thousands of sailors a week to get within Syria range, if that is what is planned. This would give Washington the option to conduct multiple strikes on Syria, destroying its air force and air defenses.
Spiraling out of control
It is not clear what the Trump plan is. The US hasn’t voiced interest in removing Assad, although the State Department has indicated over the last few years that Assad should not have a role in post-conflict Syria. Tensions do not seem to be building along the Euphrates, where the US sits eye-to-eye with the Russians and other pro-regime elements. Any clash involving air strikes could spiral out of control to involve more conflict between US partners and pro-regime forces near Deir al-Zor.
Russia has been pushed into a corner, and it doesn’t want to seem weak in Syria. It will want to stand by its ally. Iran, which is facing an economic crisis and other problems, will also want to use any crisis in Syria to its advantage. That means tensions with Israel.
The Syrian rebels may want to use the crisis as well. ISIS will use the distraction to regrow its tentacles.
Turkey, which recently hosted Putin and the Iranian leader in Ankara, has paid lip service to punishing the Syrian regime for its chemical weapons attacks, but doesn’t want more conflict in northern Syria. On Wednesday Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim urged the US and Russia to stop the war of words.
Since the US has not rolled out any kind of Syria strategy other than generalized threats, it is not clear what it thinks it will accomplish. This uncertainty now hangs over the region.