At the order of President Donald Trump, the U.S. military lobbed dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base from which a chemical weapons attack was launched this week that killed Syrian civilians — to include children. Trump’s critics are already denouncing the strikes as a sign of his recklessness and America’s deepening and unwise involvement in the Syrian civil war. His supporters are celebrating the attack as a sign of the sort of American resolve that has been missing for the last eight years as well as a message to the world’s bad guys. So which is it? Should we condemn or praise Trump’s decision? The answer, of course, is not so easy. I offer my thoughts below. It is late, I am tired, and I have more questions than answers, but here it goes.
When the Obama administration was leaning towards a military response to the 2013 Syrian chemical attack to enforce its declared red line — even though I did not favor an attack without broad-based popular, Congressional, and allied support — I observed that anything less than a large attack on Assad’s ability to project airpower would not send a strong enough message. We all know what happened next, of course, and President Obama has been heavily criticized for not acting (but I am of the view that the bigger mistake was the red line, not the failure to enforce it). The fact that most of Assad’s chemical arsenal was subsequently destroyed per an agreement brokered by Russia provided a net gain for U.S. interests.
Bringing things to the present, while I am of the opinion that a diplomatic response backed by the credible threat of military action would have been a wiser response to the Assad regime’s latest war crime (and Aaron Stein had written a fantastic article for us on what this could look like before it was overcome by events), one could reasonably argue that Trump’s cruise missile strike re-establishes deterrence with Assad as far as the narrow but important issue of chemical weapons use is concerned. However, I worry that an attack on just a single air base could be seen by the Assad regime as nothing more than symbolic and have the opposite intended effect. What if Assad does it again?
The good, as you can see, is probably not that good. But there are bigger problems with this attack.
The risk of military escalation with Russia has been one of the oft-repeated objections to a U.S. military attack on the Assad regime. While many have dismissed these concerns (unwisely, in my view), everyone can agree that such an escalation would be more likely if U.S. strikes were to kill Russian military personnel co-located with Syrian military personnel. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claims Moscow was notified of the attack ahead of time for the purposes of de-confliction, there was a part of the base in question run by the Russian military. It is still too early to know if that is true and what happened to any Russian personnel stationed there. But this news left me uneasy. Even if no Russians were hurt in this attack and if Moscow declines to counter-escalate in response, you can be sure there will be a Russian reprisal elsewhere eventually. Perhaps that is an acceptable cost to this White House, perhaps not.
Second, Obama’s reticence to launch an attack in 2013 was in part based on his desire to get Congress on board. That was the right instinct. Polls of the American people at the time revealed a lack of public support for an attack. And most reports stated the the joint resolution before both houses of Congress did not have majority support. Fast forward to today and America’s elected legislators have yet to hold a vote on U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war. That is inexcusable and the executive continues to wage war unfettered.
Third, the cruise missile strike cannot be seen in isolation. It should be measured in the context of America’s escalating involvement in the war in Syria. From air strikes, raids, and training and equipping indigenous forces under Obama (the idea that Obama was a non-interventionist in Syria never held up to even casual scrutiny), U.S. involvement has escalated under Trump to include a deployment of U.S. Marine artillery and U.S. Army Rangers. Now we have these strikes. This is a dangerous trend-line.
Trump condemned Obama for considering a strike against Assad for the 2013 chemical weapons attack and demanded he go to Congress for approval. On the campaign trail, Trump often implied that he would work with Assad and Russia to fight terrorism. The real problem, he repeatedly insisted, was the Islamic State rather than Bashar Assad. We have heard repeatedly that Trump was a realist and was not interested in foreign intervention. Just days ago, senior members of the administration seemed to accept that Assad was here to stay. Yet, after this week’s chemical weapons attack, Trump was apoplectic and said there would be a response. And there was. While the chemical attack was undeniably horrific, Assad has been killing civilians with bullets and bombs for years in far greater numbers. To be direct, it scares me how quickly and casually Trump changed a longstanding policy preference on a major issue — especially one that involves death and destruction — and for reasons that are, to put it lightly, unclear. I worry what that portends for decisions on war and peace over the next four or eight years.
Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.
Image: U.S. Navy