Syria, North Korea, and Trump - Oh My!

Note: I do not speak for the trees, nor the U.S. Government, its affiliates, or my employer; the standard disclaimers always apply.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) against Shayrat Air Base in Homs Province in response to a recent chemical attack carried out by the Russian-Backed Assad Regime. The attack was unsuccessful by most military measures. In fact, as far as Assad is concerned, militarily nothing has changed for the worse.  The Air Base is still being utilized by Assad and the Syrian Air Force, and Russia has vowed to equip Syria with more advanced surface to air missiles (SAMs) to prevent future "acts of U.S. aggression."

In addition to pledges to equip the Syrians with Russian-made SAMs to protect Syrians, and Russians at numerous western bases in Syria, Russia has also suspended all military-to-military communications with the U.S., severing an Obama-Era diplomatic tie meant to avoid accidental escalations of conflict that could lead to global catastrophe. 

An infographic from The Telegraph depicting the TLAM strike last week.

An infographic from The Telegraph depicting the TLAM strike last week.

Russia, intent on maintaining its influence in Syria, has deployed more naval vessels to the Mediterranean to secure Tartus Naval Facility and launch its own cruise missile attacks against rebels next week. The culmination of these activities brings its naval activity to levels "higher than the [previous] Cold War."

Meanwhile, critics around the world are heralding the U.S. TLAM strike as being ineffective and a red herring designed to distract the public from allegations of election misconduct by Trump and Russian intelligence officials [1, 2, 3]. All is not completely lost though, very few foreign policy officials expect a complete meltdown of U.S./Russian relations over this minor, targeted, and mostly-ineffective strike; neither Russia nor the U.S. desire a deliberate escalation of conflict between one another. Military professionals, on both sides, simply have to avoid accidental escalations until relations between the two countries are normalized, and the Syrian Civil War can go back to being the battleground for the Second Cold War.

Su-22s still operational under hardened bunkers at Shayrat Air Base. Source: The Drive

Su-22s still operational under hardened bunkers at Shayrat Air Base. Source: The Drive

So why risk so much for a largely ineffective strike against an airbase? Why use TLAMs against hardened targets when B-2s would have made more sense?  To send a message to North Korea. 

"This is what the USS Porter and USS Ross can do. We just deployed the USS Carl Vinson, USS Wayne E. Meyer, USS Michael Murphy, and USS Lake Champlain near you."

The Syrian TLAM strike took place about an hour after President Donald Trump's meeting with the Chinese president Xi Jinping to discuss the North Korean (nK) nuclear missile program. These talks occurred during the U.S. and South Korean joint exercise that specifically aims to help the two countries counter nK aggression, and occurred in spite of numerous nK missile launches. With the Carl Vinson's Carrier Strike Group being deployed to the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. has a variety of options to tackle any contingency that nK may force.

China, with their vested interest in keeping the North Korean buffer between them and the U.S.-backed South Korean military, has denounced the U.S. TLAM strike against Syria, urged caution in the Middle East, and deployed 150,000 troops to the Chinese border to prevent a refugee crisis if the U.S. does act against North Korea.

A week later, on Thursday April 13th, the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal (the second largest in the world), the 21,000 kiloton Massive Air Ordnance Bomb (MOAB), on ISIS-controlled tunnels in Afghanistan. The U.S. followed up with the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, issuing a warning to North Korea to cease and desist with nuclear testing or the U.S. may "strike first" and with "overwhelming force."  North Korea's chief deterrent to invasion is its nuclear arsenal, and it's secondary deterrent is a extremely large, heavily fortified, military force that's built itself into the mountains of the Korean Peninsula with a tunnel structure not unlike those bombed in Afghanistan earlier that day.



The message to North Korea is clear: The tunnels won't save you. The message has seemed to work; as the Day of the Sun came and went, nK did not test its nuclear weapon, opting in stead to only showcase their existing missile technology in its military parades. The move by nK to showcase its ICBMs during the highly publicized parade was a clear response to the U.S., “We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack."

Source: The Guardian

Source: The Guardian

The world collectively breathes a sigh of relief as the nuclear tests that might have provoked a response from South Korea, the U.S. and its neighboring carrier strike group, and the F-35s based out of Japan. While it's incredibly naive to think that North Korea is abandoning the nuclear program, it's clear that this sort of diplomacy worked for President Trump.

The problem we now face is more subtle. When dramatic military action on one side of the world is meant to affect diplomacy on the other, world leaders start to see ghosts in the background. The Russian Times, the defacto Kremlin-propaganda mouthpiece, showed a lot of skepticism yesterday in a recent U.S. press release about F-35 training in Europe.  The number of air quotes and amount of snark contained in the article would be funny if it wasn't a key piece of foreign policy between two nuclear superpowers.

The U.S. is deploying "a small number" of "F-35s" for "training."  India, can I interest you in a PAK-FA for one beeeylion dollars?

The U.S. is deploying "a small number" of "F-35s" for "training."  India, can I interest you in a PAK-FA for one beeeylion dollars?

The snark and skepticism is understandable given current relations, but it shows that the recent foreign policy victory in South East Asia may be shortlived. With relations as they are, and duplicity and proxy wars affecting global foreign policy, the Cold War is in full swing. This time, the two men waging it are wildly unpopular, except when they're dropping bombs, and conflict seems inevitable. The result can only come to one of two logical conclusions:  A conspiracy between the two governments involving a deep level of coordination on who strikes when and where, or the use of fifth generation aircraft to strike with relative impunity as outdated SAMs watch impotently.

A U.S. F-35 taking off.  The Air Force will deploy a few F-35s for a long-planned training exercise in Europe soon. Source: 388 Fighter Wing; Copyright Lockheed Martin. 

A U.S. F-35 taking off.  The Air Force will deploy a few F-35s for a long-planned training exercise in Europe soon. Source: 388 Fighter Wing; Copyright Lockheed Martin. 

I won't be covering the Russia-Trump Scandal to avoid perceived violations of Articles 88 & 134 of the UCMJ; passing mentions are subject to disclaimers.

I won't be covering the Russia-Trump Scandal to avoid perceived violations of Articles 88 & 134 of the UCMJ; passing mentions are subject to disclaimers.

With reports of arrests for the growing Russia-Trump Scandal occurring "next week," I would not be surprised to see a lot of press about the U.S. fifth generation platform. Its promotion by the U.S. serves several purposes:

  1. It will likely result in an approval bump for a beleaguered administration
  2. It distracts from the Russia-Trump allegations
  3. It keeps North Korea on notice
  4. It reassures NATO, which has been suffering from an on-again/off-again relationship with the Trump White House
  5. It supports whatever it is we're doing in Syria

Things will likely normalize over time, but until they do most people will remain, understandably, on edge. Until then, stay involved and informed.  Keep your elected officials accountable for their actions - or inactions - and help us get foreign policy back to a place where air quotes aren't used sarcastically when discussing the fate of humanity.