Deterrence exists in the mind, not necessarily the battlefield. Nations posture against each other attempting to influence actions and perceptions. For many years, airpower has been a powerful tool of deterrence strategies. But what happens when it doesn’t work. What happens when deterrence fails?
Deterrence is the art of influencing adversary actions before they occur, the art of coercing adversaries to choose pathways consistent with your desires. Simply put, deterrence is the use of threats, either implicit or explicit. Thomas Schelling literally wrote the book on deterrence, and he states the science of military victory is no longer the determinant factor. To deter an adversary, military action must be anticipated, however the action is avoidable if the adversary changes their behavior. That is a key factor most often overlooked. If the military action is unavoidable no matter what the adversary does, the adversary is not deterred. The adversary must be given an out, or an off-ramp, to avoid the military action.
Deterrence is normally associated with weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, however don’t be fooled. Deterrence exists everywhere, in all military action and strategies. The act of publicizing the creation of the B-21, or the shadowy operations of the X-37, or the deployment of a Carrier Battle Group enhance deterrence across the spectrum. But it goes both ways. The pilot retention crisis, lack of a coherent foreign policy, and the failure of new systems degrade deterrence. In international relations, everything has deterrent value.
Much has been said recently about chemical weapon attacks in Syria, and whether deterrence was achieved, failed, re-established or not. When looked at from a larger perspective, it appears that Assad was deterred from using chemical weapons, then he wasn’t, then he was, then he wasn’t, and now he is again. The reality of the situation when looked at in depth may be that Assad was never really deterred at all.
By mid-2012, the United States became concerned that chemical weapons would possibly be used in Syria. President Obama attempted to deter that use in August 2012 by calling out chemical weapons use as a ‘red line.’ The use of ‘red lines’ is actually quite common in diplomatic circles and has been shown to be very effective in deterrence strategies. Red lines are always communicated, they have to be or they do not serve any useful purpose. The adversary must know in order to affect his decision matrix. The perception was this ‘red line’ communication firmly established the US position on the use of chemical weapons. Syria was now fully aware that there would be consequences. It was the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013 (a full year after Obama’s statement) that called into question the US threat of retaliation. The media was all over this chemical attack, and what the US response would be. Deterrence had failed, how would the US respond? However, there had already been 15 reported uses of chemical weapons between the President’s remarks and the Ghouta attack. Ghouta had crossed the red line, why didn’t the others?
In this case, the US had to respond or risk losing all credibility. The US did so in September 2013 by bringing legislation that would authorize the use of force against Syria. The US Secretary of State publicly stated Syria could avoid this military action if they turned over its entire chemical weapons stockpile. Syria agreed, and the military action was averted. Therefore, in theory, deterrence was re-established. The threat of military action had become very real to Syria, but they were provided an off-ramp (give up your arsenal). They accepted, and the perception of deterrence was re-established. The threat of force coerced Syria into a favorable action. The gnashing of teeth in the media over whether this was the right or wrong move, whether it was good or bad, whether it was strong or weak, was debated on party lines. The political objective was to remove Syria’s chemical weapons and that objective was (supposedly) achieved without the use of force. Therefore the partisan outcry over the manner in which the military threat served the political purpose is irrelevant.
UN Resolution 2118 granted permission to any member of the UN to “take action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” in event Syria makes use of chemical weapons again. Deterrence was re-established. Case closed. The people who didn’t like it, didn’t like it because of their political party.
The American public was led to believe that all was well until April 2017 when Khan Shaykhun was attacked with chemical weapons killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Deterrence was never in place, Syria had only gone underground. It was revealed the UN Resolution had not deterred Syria, and they had lied about turning over their stockpile. The problem is, those inside the action already knew about both of those things. There were over 45 separate reported uses of chemical weapons between the UN Resolution and Khan Shaykhun. Obama and Trump both saw chemical use and chose not to respond during this period. Most people are surprised to know there have been over 60 separate reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012.
When President Trump was forced into action, his goal was to re-establish deterrence. He had to convince Assad this type of action is not acceptable, and would be punished. The cruise missile strike on Shayrat punished Syria for their action, and the messaging that took place afterwards cemented the unacceptable nature of such action. We know that his goal was not to remove the threat of chemical weapons. It that were the case Shayrat would not have been struck. This airbase was chosen because the attack on Khan Shaykhun was carried out by Su-22s from Shayrat, even though a majority of past attacks were carried out by attack helicopters. Just as before, the people who didn’t like it, didn’t like it because of their political party. However, the question remains, has deterrence been re-established?
Ask North Korea.
It is not an accident the strike on Syria took place at the same moment the leader of China was meeting with President Trump. That strike was done to demonstrate US willpower to multiple adversaries, not just Syria. When it comes to North Korea, the US cannot effectively deter anything. When digging through the four instruments of national power, most are not effective in North Korea. Diplomatic ties are weak, there is no real connection to North Korea and the US works through intermediaries who all have their own agendas. The information methods also don’t work very well due to the tight grip the North Korean government has on information in that country. The US’ ability to pierce that propaganda shield is limited. Economic sanction from the US are also ineffective and have been for years. North Korea’s only true economic link to the global system is China, therefore only China can hurt North Korea economically. He only option remaining is military, however it remains unclear if the threat of military force gets through to North Korea. The strike on Syria showed China this threat is credible.
This highlights the real key to deterrence: credibility.
In response to the Syrian strike, China turned back coal imports from North Korea. That single action told the world China believes the US threat to North Korea is credible. Only China can put enough pressure on North Korea to avert military action and alter their choices. Syria will continue to act with impunity until their sponsor, Russia, puts enough pressure on them. President Trump used a single strike to communicate to 4 different adversaries.
But the question remains, did it work? Russia got the message, and Syria has not executed any further chemical attacks, therefore it appears deterrence has been restored. Or has it? China got the message, but can they coerce North Korea fast enough and long enough to avert another devastating Korean Conflict?
While I believe a unified Korea is inevitable, I do not believe military action against North Korea is. There is time to resolve this conflict without force, but time is running out. While it has not been communicated, I believe the President has created his own internal ‘red line’ with regards to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The detonation of another nuclear device is that red line. If that event transpires (and it probably will very shortly), the President will be forced into irreversible action.
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