Sunday, April 9, 2017
#OyVeyDonaldTrump's Confusing Strike on Syria.If President#OyVeyDonaldTrump broadens his aims against Assad, he will enter the very morass that Candidate #OyVeyDonaldTrump warned against.
Illustration by Tom Bachtell
On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda suicide bombers struck two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing two hundred and twenty-four people, most of them Africans. Two weeks later, President Bill Clinton launched Operation Infinite Reach, a fusillade of cruise missiles aimed at a reported Al Qaeda meeting in Afghanistan, and at a factory in Sudan, which was suspected of involvement with chemical weapons. “There will be no sanctuary for terrorists,” Clinton declared. The retaliation produced few tangible benefits. And yet, since then, from Kosovo to Waziristan to Libya, the United States has repeatedly threatened or carried out missile and drone attacks and air strikes for limited and sometimes imprecise purposes. In the modern Presidency, firing off missiles has become a rite of passage.
Last Thursday, his seventy-seventh day in office, President Donald Trump pressed the cruise-missile button, sending fifty-nine Tomahawks to strike an airbase in Syria. He did so after concluding from intelligence reports that President Bashar al-Assad’s Air Force had, on April 4th, killed or sickened hundreds of people in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a town held by rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow. Trump said that his strike was aimed at ending “the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
The President’s decision was familiar for being both spontaneous and confusing. As has happened before, he was apparently inspired to act by what he saw on TV—in this case, distressing images of stricken women and children. Yet, despite having previously seen similarly horrifying pictures, Trump had been skeptical of military action in Syria. In 2013, Assad’s forces attacked civilians and rebels near Damascus with sarin, a banned nerve agent, killing more than a thousand people. Trump advised President Obama, via Twitter, “Do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside.” (Obama had called Assad’s use of chemical arms crossing a “red line,” which might lead the U.S. to take military action, but he did not strike. Instead, Russia helped broker an agreement by which Assad gave up many—but evidently not all—of his chemical arms.)
Trump has said, “I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.” In the case of Syria, however, he seems to have acted without a clear plan in place. During the campaign, he promised to “bomb the shit out of” isis, which holds territory in Syria, but he also said that it was foolish to become mired in the civil war, or to target Assad, who has opposed isis—at least, rhetorically. As recently as March 30th, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Assad’s future would be “decided by the Syrian people,” words that signalled a sharp departure from Obama’s insistence that Assad must leave office. Then, last Thursday, Tillerson seemed to shift direction, saying that “it would seem there would be no role” for Assad in Syria’s political future. But he later said, “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.”
Syria’s civil war is the worst geopolitical disaster of the twenty-first century. It has claimed at least four hundred and seventy thousand lives; prompted a refugee crisis that has destabilized European politics and fuelled the rise of nativist populism; and created a playing field for Russian and Iranian adventurism in the Middle East. Six years of efforts to end the war through diplomacy have failed. The interference of regional and global powers, combined with the fragmentation of militias and guerrillas on the battlefield, have made the conflict appear all but unresolvable. During the past year, the more mainstream rebels opposing Assad have suffered repeated setbacks, including the loss of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
Why, then, would the Trump Administration want to lob a few dozen cruise missiles into this splintered landscape? One limited rationale might be that Syria’s conflict has eroded global treaties banning the use of chemical arms—every time Assad gasses civilians, he increases the likelihood that another dictator or general will use them. It seems odd, though, to initiate armed intervention to prevent one sort of Syrian war crime but not others. Assad has tortured and executed thousands of his own people. Syrian and Russian forces routinely violate international law by targeting civilians, physicians, and rescue workers with bombs and artillery shells. And, if Trump has suddenly been moved to address the suffering, he might start recognizing the legitimacy of Syrians as refugees of war and welcoming them to resettle in the United States.
If President Trump broadens his aims against Assad, to establish civilian safe havens, for example, or to ground Syria’s Air Force, or to bomb Assad to the negotiating table, he will enter the very morass that Candidate Trump warned against. He would have to manage risks—military confrontation with Russia, an intensified refugee crisis, a loss of momentum against isis—that Obama studied at great length and concluded to be unmanageable, at least at a cost consistent with American interests.
Since the Cold War’s end, the United States has led or joined more than half a dozen wars or armed interventions lasting longer than a few months, including the ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, in 1991; the conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11; and, in 2011, during the Arab uprisings, the removal of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. A few of these wars achieved their aims, albeit at a cost in lives and treasure; others went sideways or turned into disasters, as in Libya, where Obama’s intervention has been followed by six years of chaos, civil war, and the rise of a branch of isis. You don’t need an advanced degree in military history to identify the main lessons: once started, even limited wars upend initial plans and assumptions, violence produces unintended consequences, and conflicts are much easier to begin or escalate than to end.
Canadian, European, and Middle Eastern allies, as well as some sections of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, applauded Trump for his strike, pointing out its narrow scope, and noting that Assad had brought it on himself. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s continual search for approval seems to contribute to his unpredictability. Perhaps he will soon rediscover his inclination to proceed cautiously in Middle Eastern wars. Given his bombast, his inconsistency, and his preference for gut instinct over policy knowledge, he always seemed likely to be a dangerous wartime President. The worry now is that he will also be an ambitious one. ♦