“The art of war is divided between force and stratagem. What cannot be done by force must be done by stratagem.”
—Frederick the Great
On Saturday morning April 14, over 100 precision-guided munitions, most if not all, cruise missiles fired from surface and subsurface naval vessels, tactical attack planes and a pair of B-1 long-range strategic bombers, took out three target sets in Syria to include one chemical weapons production facility in Damascus and storage sites along with a Hezbollah command post near Homs. The attack demolished the intended targets.
A coalition force from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France executed the attack flawlessly and without suffering a single loss to ineffective Syrian defenses. Russian defenses chose not to respond. Coalition spokespersons claim the attacks will impede Syria’s chemical warfare production capabilities, at least temporarily. What happened in Syria on April 14 exemplified a limited military attack.
Critics immediately carped that the attack reflected a lack of strategic acumen on the part of President Donald Trump’s administration. Because Washington’s commitment to the ongoing Syrian civil war focuses primarily on destroying ISIS, it may seem that interposing force in reaction to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons was unnecessary. Here is why that is a strategically ignorant assumption.
First, the limited strike on Syria was necessary because al-Assad and his regime defied international laws attendant to the use of chemical weapons by using them on his enemies and on innocent civilians. The previous administration threatened to respond with force and then failed to do so. The Trump administration has twice responded forcefully and will do so again if necessary.
Second, the coalition’s ability to bring air and naval forces—both surface and subsurface—together demonstrates a very high level of military capability.
Third, and most importantly, the attack constituted a stratagem supporting Washington’s larger strategy. Broadly defined, strategy is a plan or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim. Stratagem is a plan or action designed to gain a major advantage over one or more competitors. This attack was aimed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Syria’s al-Assad is, in this instance, small potatoes.
What did not happen in the April 14 strikes is also important. Russia’s S-300/400 air defenses did not respond. This supports the statement above concerning where al-Assad falls in the Russian view of the international food chain. It also tells us Russian intelligence quickly assessed the limited nature of the attack. Their satellites tracked only two B-1 strategic bombers headed for Syria. The number of aircraft involved in aerial refueling gave away the limited size of the strategic bomber force headed for Syria. Additionally, the USS Harry S. Truman left Norfolk only two days earlier was at least a week away from the eastern Mediterranean. A large-scale effort would have awaited the carrier. Russian agents in Washington, London, and Paris were also monitoring the whereabouts and activities of major political and military leaders. All indicators pointed to a limited operation.
There is another reason Russian defenses in Syria demurred. Had the Russians engaged, Western intelligence services and the Israelis would have obtained a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive weapons. The size and composition of the attacking force was such that Russia understood its limited nature and reacted accordingly. Russia’s intelligence warning system correctly interpreted the message our force composition sent. The system worked.
Nevertheless, the Truman carrier battle group may be vital to what happens next. Israel must act soon to end Tehran’s military support for Hezbollah and eliminate Iranian Revolutionary Guard units from areas near its northern border. How Russia reacts to an all-out Israeli attack will be crucial. Moscow must not underestimate Washington’s resolve and commitment to Israel. That resolve may also facilitate a new era in Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Finally, that Central Intelligence Agency Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo met secretly with Kim Jong-un is as historically significant as Henry Kissinger’s clandestine trips to Beijing in 1971 leading to a new relationship with China and his secret meetings with North Vietnamese leaders that ended American participation in the war in Vietnam.
If President Trump meets with Kim Jong-un, American credibility will affect the outcome. Hopefully, leaders in Moscow and Tehran are paying attention. The recent attack on Syria was a stratagem integral to the Trump administration’s comprehensively robust grand strategy. A new global paradigm is emerging and the same old same old is over in Washington.
—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.