Thursday night, President Trump ordered missile strikes on an airfield controlled by the Syrian regime near the location of the recent horrific chemical weapons attack. Trump argued that the strike was necessary to respond to the attack that he believed to have been launched from that airfield.
As a theoretical matter, a targeted military strike in response to a major violation of non-conventional weapons norms is justifiable. Why have rules against chemical weapons use if no one is going to pay a price for violating the rules? International norms should be upheld by the international community—not the United States acting alone—but it’s hard to argue against Trump’s action last night when viewed in isolation as a response to Assad’s barbaric attack.
The problem is military strikes never happen in isolation—the before and after are arguably even more important than the strike itself. The actions Trump took leading up to Assad’s chemical weapons attack, as well as the all-important and totally unanswered question of what comes next, highlight the administration’s immoral and hypocritical approach to violence in the region.
The question Syria experts have been asking themselves this week is this: Why did Assad return to chemical weapons use, risking the ire of the global community, when he is, by all accounts, in a stronger position in Syria than at any time since 2013? The answer likely lies in the green light that the Trump administration gave Assad just a few days before the chemical weapons attack was launched. As my colleague Marco Rubio noted this week, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that U.S. policy was now to allow Assad’s future to “be decided by the Syrian people” (a regular Russian talking point on Syria policy) he seemed to telegraph that Assad was free to act without repercussions from the United States. Rubio’s point is hard to argue – once Assad realized U.S. policy was no longer tied to his removal, there was nothing to hold him back.
Second, the check on Syria’s use of chemical weapons since 2013 had largely been Russia. The threat of U.S. military action in Syria in 2013 prompted the Russians to step in and help remove chemical weapons stocks from Syria. Obviously, they didn’t finish the job. But why? The answer here could lie in the newfound impunity with which Russia now operates globally. Since Trump was inaugurated, Russia has violated a long-standing missile treaty, accelerated the pace of military activity in Ukraine, dramatically ramped up its influence in the Balkans, and effectively taken control of the political process in Syria. Russia has acted this way since January because it no longer fears any reprisals from the United States. Their inability to finish the disposal of chemical weapons, or their unwillingness to veto the chemical attack, can be explained by the perceived permission slip they have been granted by the Trump administration.
President Trump seems not to have thought through any of this, or have any kind of broader strategy.
But the fundamental problem with the missile strikes arises when viewing it within the context of Trump’s other policies in the Middle East. First and most obvious is the policy of trapping Syrian families inside this dystopian war zone by refusing to help war victims relocate outside the country. Trump claimed to have ordered the missile strike because he was so personally moved by the images of the children killed by the attacks. Does our president not realize that these are the same children he’s twice tried to ban from entering our country? Or that last year alone, 650 children were killed in Syria, none by chemical weapons? What about the 2.3 million children who have had to flee their homes, living in refugee camps or on the streets of Damascus or Beirut or Amman? The new U.S. policy to ban all Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States, alongside Trump’s proposal to cut by 40 percent the funds that help settle refugees in other countries, will condemn far more children to death than were killed by chemical weapons this week.
Further, how can the region, or the world, reconcile the president’s newly discovered compassion for the victims of this war crime, when the administration has been so blind to prior conduct in Syria and similar transgressions in other parts of the region? Secretary Tillerson couldn’t commit to calling Assad’s barrel bombing of civilians a war crime, but he pivoted his rhetoric on a dime this week upon the chemical weapons attack. Yes, chemical weapons use poses a unique threat to global stability, but so does the intentional targeting of civilians by a domestic military. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been deliberately killed by Assad with conventional weapons – doesn’t our moral condemnation of that behavior melt when we decide that we are in fact willing to use military power against Assad, but only in response to the killing of 50 out of 450,000? To a Syrian parent, a child killed by a barrel bomb hurts no less than a child killed by sarin gas. I have long argued against the use of the military in Syria, but the only thing worse than a large scale deployment of U.S. forces in Syria may be the teasing of tiny amounts of military power that actually provides no change in the battle dynamics.
And what comes next? Is this the start of a dangerous military escalation, where the Russians feel compelled to ramp up their support for their ally in response to U.S. intervention? We already have more than 500 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria—is the next step the creation of safe zones, as Sean Spicer suggested? That would require even more U.S. military assets, increasing the risk of direct conflict with Russia, ISIS, and Assad. How does any of this end, or get us closer to a political agreement that will actually help the people of Syria? President Trump seems not to have thought through any of this, or have any kind of broader strategy, but rather to have launched a military strike based on a sudden, emotional decision.
It is hard to argue against taking a limited, targeted action against a solitary airfield as a consequence for a grotesque use of chemical weapons. But in the context of Trump’s broader foreign policy mistakes, the strike is hard to justify, and harder to defend. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Thursday’s missile strikes on a single airfield will have any lasting deterrent effect. A more comprehensive response would include sharply increasing pressure on the Russian government, whose support has enabled Assad to continue his reign of terror; ramping up humanitarian support and refugee aid so that any Syrian family who wants to flee the violence can; empowering the State Department to help find a political solution instead of outsourcing reconciliation to the Russians and the Turks; and keeping U.S. troops out of the fight to take Raqqa, which risks bogging us down inside a long term civil war for the future of Syria. Air strikes to enforce arms treaties can make sense. But when it comes to the potential quagmire of Syria, these strikes must exist as part of a broader, coherent policy – a policy that simply does not exist today.