Despite the wag-the-dog appearance of President Trump’s about-face on Syria—that is, the possibility that his primary motivation has more to do with his desire to distract attention from his growing domestic problems than with a genuine concern for Syrian babies—the President’s action last week has opened a small and narrow window that, with the proper political vision, could help end the conflict in Syria and with it, the suffering of the Syrian people.
Trump was right in deciding to take on Assad, and his decision was hailed by both Republicans and Democrats. As a Syrian-American who has urged action against the regime for years, I am not going to ask too many questions, legitimate though they may be, about how and why Trump came to represent action, rather than standing by while beautiful babies get killed.
But the afterglow of credibility, legitimacy and strength in which Trump is currently basking will prove all too ephemeral unless he backs it up with a strong plan for Syria. The fact that the airport the U.S. targeted in central Syria was back in use mere hours after the strike took place comes as clear indication that a limited, one-off strike will not do the trick, and constitutes a serious test of the administration’s resolve, especially in light of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s assertion that the U.S. is “prepared to do more.”
Without a clear strategy in place, one that includes a political vision for an endgame, the administration could stumble from one strike to another, making a bad situation worse both for the Syrians and for itself.
No political plan can sidestep the Russians and their interests at this stage, not only in Syria but perhaps also in Ukraine and elsewhere. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seems to have always seen these fronts as interlinked. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must have learned few things in this regard following his two-hour meeting with Putin, not to mention his meetings with Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Having already accused the Russians of being either “complicit” or “incompetent” in regard to the chemical attack, it’s not surprising that he spoke of “a low level of trust” between the two countries during his concluding press conference. It’s also not surprising to hear Lavrov reassert his country’s commitment to Syria’s genocidaire, Bashar Al-Assad, albeit rather obliquely, by noting that his removal was not on the agenda. Indeed, as Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute has repeatedly noted, Putin’s attachment to Assad involves certain domestic calculations as well. That is,
Having staked enormous political capital on the recovery of at least some of the main geopolitical assets lost in the Soviet Union’s demise, Putin will defend Assad until the domestic political costs become too high to bear.
As such and irrespective of the nature of his primary motivation, be it a cynical attempt at manipulating the news or a genuine concern for the children of Syria, Trump needs to get serious and develop a better understanding soon of the complexities of the gambit he just embarked upon, for there are a variety of ways with which his decision to get involved could come back to haunt him, both at home and abroad.
For instance, should Assad—backed by his Russian and Iranian buddies—decide to escalate his strikes against the civilian population over the next few weeks, producing more images of suffering and dying children, what would Trump do? Continued defiance by Assad at this stage, even without the use of chemical weapons, could easily transform Trump’s show of strength into a running joke. Buoyed as he is by Russian and Iranian backing, including recourse to the use of internationally banned incendiary weapons, Assad has every reason to be defiant, and every reason to escalate. By targeting the same town mere hours after he sustained the American strike, he, in fact, did exactly that.
Standing up to America will help Assad patch up his fraying support base at home at a time when members of his supposedly loyalist militias seem to have become more beholden to Iran and Russia than to him. As such, if his ability to carry out major attacks against the civilian population, whether by using chemical weapons or by any other means, is not seriously curtailed by American strikes, Assad will emerge as a victor, and his position among his supporters will be strengthened and re-legitimated. And Moscow will even more reasons to back him. In fact, and while some note that the recent battlefield losses incurred by pro-Assad troops in central Syria as being the primary motive behind the recent chemical attack, achieving this might be more to the point.
In a way, then, rather than gaining leverage, Trump might have just entrusted his political future to the whims and calculations of a mass murderer—unless, that is, he comes up with a credible plan soon. Trump risks looking ridiculous, and “a man in his position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous,” to quote a tragic character from The Godfather (which seems strangely appropriate, considering the protagonists involved on all sides).
By now, three things should be clear: one limited strike is insufficient to deliver the message to a desperate killer like Assad, yet strikes without an overall strategy for follow-through risks major blowback, while a narrow focus on the use of chemical weapons seems quite meaningless if the killing is allowed to go on by other means. In other words, now that a major chemical attack by the Assad regime has finally triggered an American response against it, that response cannot be limited to the issue of chemical weapons; otherwise, we’re back where President Barack Obama left us in 2013, which is to say washing our hands of the whole thing.
Second, this is no time for improvisation and for stumbling along. Trump now needs to avail himself of the rare show of bipartisanship in the wake of the attack to encourage his national security team to work in cooperation with supporters in Congress to craft a comprehensive strategy that can move us in the right direction. This strategy must involve more intense strikes targeting vital assets controlled by the Assad regime and greater support to rebel groups fighting against it, coupled with a strong diplomatic push meant to revive and reinvigorate the Geneva peace process as well as a continuous media campaign highlighting Assad’s war crimes so that the world never forgets why President Trump recently called him “an animal.”
Moreover, the White House should seriously consider imposing additional sanctions on Russia related to their use of incendiary weapons in Syria and their involvement in covering up Assad’s mounting war crimes there. As strange as this may sound, the costs of Putin’s Syria campaign has been quite low so far, perhaps when this is no longer the case or when he realizes that he now risks facing increasing costs, he might become more pliable.
Finally, it’s not just Trump’s persona credibility that’s on the line here; it’s America’s. And America’s credibility has already been dealt too many blows over the last few years because of incoherent policy on Syria. It’s time to rectify that. More than 50,000 children have died throughout the course of this conflict. If Trump was truly motivated to act by his concern for Syria’s children, then he needs to make ending the conflict there a foreign policy priority for his administration.