As President Trump announced his decision to authorize a “targeted military strike” against “Syrian dictator” Bashar Al-Assad on Friday morning, he spoke of America’s “vital national security interests” in responding to the use of chemical weapons in Idlib earlier this week. Stating that previous efforts to dislodge Assad had “failed dramatically” Trump asked for: “God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.” He voiced the hope that: “as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.
The 59 Tomahawk missiles launched on Friday mark an escalation of US engagement in Syria that the previous administration tried hard to avoid. Trump has called the failure to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” President Obama placed around the use of chemical weapons a “humiliation”; but in September 2013 he tweeted support for Obama’s decision to forgo military action, warning that there was “no upside and tremendous downside” in further entanglement. At the time Obama knew that he needed Congress to extend his authorization for the further use of military force; he also knew that it wasn’t forthcoming. The ensuing stand-down, and the subsequent Russian-brokered compromise over chemical weapons, were embarrassing but they also kept the US safely on the sidelines of another dangerously open-ended Middle East war.
Assad’s crimes – especially the use of barrel bombs and chemical agents – have been repeatedly documented throughout the six-year conflict, but strategically they are just one aspect of the current crisis. The war has become as much a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a civil conflict for Syrians. Further complications arise from the involvement of the Kurds, not to mention Qatar, Turkey and Russia, especially since the different agendas of these outside parties both coincide with and contradict each other’s interests, not to mention those of the Islamic State, at different times and in different arenas. The war has generated a barely decipherable array of unstable alliances, that have made a political solution all but unattainable, and the slow pace of peace talks has led several factions to treat the imperilment of huge numbers of civilians as a legitimate means of breaking the military stalemate.
Trump’s decision to enforce a “red line” will be deemed impulsive in many quarters but it is entirely consistent with the interventionist stance of important parts of the US military. Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, recently told the Economist that he found Secretary Tillerson’s recent comment that the Syrian people should determine their future by themselves as “one of the most unusual depictions of the facts on the ground that I’ve ever heard of … what about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, what about the Russians, what about Hezbollah?” McCain condemned Obama’s inaction in 2013 as “one of the great errors of American history,” adding, “Nature abhors a vacuum; Barack Obama created vacuums.” He added that Obama had left behind “a world in chaos: six million refugees, 400,000 killed, Chinese asserting sovereignty over international waters, Russia now established in the Middle East like they haven’t been since 1973…” If other Republican hawks feel the same way, it is hard to see how the Trump administration will withstand pressure to double down on its new engagement.
Even before the missile strike is factored in, the challenges facing Trump in Syria would daunt a more reflective leader. For one thing there is the political complexity of the combatants themselves. The emergence of al-Qaeda affiliates within the resistance, and the atrocities committed by such groups, have shown the dangers of naive intervention, but better knowledge of the conflict can also induce a sort of diplomatic paralysis. When the British House of Commons Defence Committee gathered evidence on the Islamic State, one Middle East expert listed no fewer than 60 distinct factions engaged in the Syrian conflict, and noted that despite the enormous carnage, foreign militias “show no sign of ‘war weariness.’” The same expert noted that while “[c]urrent rhetoric suggests the Islamic State is an imminent, existential threat” the policies pursued by the Western coalition fighting IS “actually amounted to containment.”
Trump’s missile strike moves US policy beyond containment and it will complicate the war against IS, but it remains a largely symbolic gesture at this stage. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius notes that ironically “Trump faces the same bad military options in western Syria that Obama did.” Only when the President and his Secretary of State develop a coherent response to the pushback from Assad and his allies will the true impact of the strikes become clear. Until then while it is heartening to learn that President Trump can change his mind on major foreign policy issues, it is unnerving to see how precipitously US policy could change if he does so. However well-intentioned the current pressure on Assad may be, Trump will soon realize that the “troubled world” he must grapple with cannot be governed by instinct alone. President George W Bush inveighed against nation-building in the Middle East before, and with the best of intentions, he plunged the US into two terribly misguided experiments in nation-building. Trump may soon find his moral clarity towards Assad insufficient to offset the “tremendous downside” of further involvement in another foreign war.