Thank goodness: President Trump’s decision to launch limited missile strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria was an appropriate use of force—and a relief after a week when it appeared the White House was considering a much bigger attack.
As a former Pentagon and State Department official, and as someone who has long advocated for greater American military involvement in Syria, I believe a significant intervention now would be a huge mistake that would only harm the United States and the Syrian people. Trump should continue to show restraint.
I served in the Obama administration and supported most of his policies, but I always disagreed with his approach to Syria and believed that if the United States had aggressively armed a moderate opposition early on in the conflict, while it still existed, and combined it with missile strikes, a no-fly zone or the establishment of safe zones, we could have overthrown Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and ended the war sooner.
I was not alone. Syria was the most divisive foreign policy issue inside the Obama administration, with roughly an equal divide between those who advocated doing more and those who feared getting sucked in.
I welcomed Trump’s decision last year to launch 59 U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Sharyrat airbase in response to a chemical weapon attack against his own people. It was a limited strike, with limited risks, designed to achieve a clear and limited objective – deterring Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Which is why I also supported last night’s limited strikes to remind Assad that the use of chemical weapons comes with a cost.
But what I cannot support is what we heard about during most of the past week and might still be on the table if Assad continues using chemical weapons – much more comprehensive missile strikes that could last days, include a broad array of regime facilities, and significantly increase the risks of inadvertently killing Russian troops and getting us into a low-grade war with Russia. Such an approach makes little sense today unless it can be coupled with a broader strategy that can translate it into a meaningful political outcome that ends the war. And there is no evidence that such a strategy is on the table.
The first justification for escalation—going beyond Friday’s strikes—is that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and the United States must deter Assad from using these weapons. Clearly the deterrence established by last year’s strikes did not work, the argument goes, so the U.S. had to strike again and hit a broader array of targets. And if Assad does not yield, we must strike even harder.
The problem with this argument is that for years, Assad has terrorized his population through the use of air strikes, artillery launches and barrel bombs. Of the half a million people who have died in Syria, only a small fraction were victims of chemical weapons attacks. For the most part, the United States and the rest of the international community stood aside. After all this time, is it really worth risking a war because of a chemical weapons attack? This weekend’s strikes, and the diplomatic pressure that Russia came under in the leadup, are probably enough to get Assad to return to his other brutal tactics and not repeat his use of chemical weapons (for at least some period of time). But even if he does repeat them, the risks are simply not worth a major escalation.
Another argument is that American credibility is on the line. If Assad, with Russia’s backing, calls President Trump’s bluff, he’ll look weak. If we were truly concerned about American credibility, we might try following through on our international commitments instead of withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, NAFTA and even NATO. (Better yet, if we were truly concerned about credibility we should probably not have elected Donald Trump president of the United States.)
The only reasonable rationale for an American military escalation in Syria would be if it was part of a strategy to translate the use of force into leverage that could be used to negotiate a sustainable settlement that ends the war and stabilizes the country. Such a strategy would also be based on the need to eliminate the Islamic State’s ability to take advantage of the security vacuums in Syria to build safe havens from which they plan attacks against the United States and its partners.
Incidentally, this would also be the only viable way to make the case that comprehensive strikes against Assad are authorized under Congress’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against terrorist organizations. And even then it would be a legal stretch.
Going aggressively after Assad may have been possible earlier in the conflict and especially before the Russians entered in 2015, when his regime was teetering. But the sad reality of today is that Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have won the civil war. Most of the country’s population and urban centers are under his control.
Dislodging Assad at this point would take a major American military intervention, likely including the insertion of ground forces and a direct confrontation with Russia. And even then, it would cause the war to drag on for years longer at great cost to the Syrian people.
There is no indication the United States and its partners have any interest in such an investment. Just a little over a week ago, President Trump was pushing for a complete withdrawal from Syria against the unanimous opposition of his military advisers. There is no way he is pivoting to a regime change operation.
Moreover, there is zero evidence that this administration could pull off an action this complex. Using limited military force to engineer a political end to a conflict as complicated as the Syrian civil war would be difficult for even the shrewdest and most effective presidents. And America’s track record at successfully solving these problems is mixed at best. The Obama administration certainly did not cover itself in glory in the way it handled Syria.
But the notion that a team led by Donald Trump could somehow pull this off is laughable. It took 9 months after last year’s strikes just to get a Syria strategy, which former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined in a speech this past January. That speech is no longer on the State Department website, and reportedly Trump was displeased with it and never supported it.
We will never know if an American military action early in the Syrian civil war could have made a difference. It may have. The limited symbolic strike to deter chemical weapons attacks that we saw yesterday was worthwhile. But the more aggressive military options that may still be on the table if Assad does not cease his use of chemical weapons are a recipe for disaster.