President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike on Syria from his national security team, April 6, 2017.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the Executive Office of the President of the United States.
When a dictator uses banned chemical weapons against his country’s own citizenry, there are only three things the rest of the world can do. The first is to deny he did it; the second is to wring hands and utter words amounting to “tsk-tsk-tsk;” the third is to ensure that he and his coterie suffer some significant consequence.
Bashar Assad’s backers, chief among them Russia and Iran, inevitably choose the first option. Former President Barack Obama made a career out of doing the second, although he occasionally diversified into denial (or at least self-denial) when he accepted Russian assurances that Assad no longer possessed the weapons that he still occasionally used. Most European powers were content to follow Obama’s lead – or maybe he was following theirs. It made no difference in the end.
But President Trump chose door number three on Thursday when he ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles targeting the air base from which Assad’s forces launched their latest crime against humanity. Two days prior dozens of people were killed, and many others were hospitalized, by a toxic gas that survivors said was dropped from warplanes. Many of the victims were children. The U.S. strike in response represents a significant departure from the White House’s previous position on involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The long-range assault, launched from U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean, did not eliminate and may not even have substantially reduced Assad’s capacity to carry out chemical attacks on his people, nor do such attacks pose a serious threat to his grip on power. That would take a far greater commitment of U.S. air power, including a decision to confront Syria’s Russian-provided aerial cover and anti-aircraft defenses. It most likely would also require a substantial number of boots on the ground, given the degraded state of the country’s opposition. Whether those boots might belong to Americans, Turks, Saudis or someone else is an open question.
But those were not the objectives of Thursday’s assault. The objective was to change the calculations in capitals around the world, from Damascus to Moscow to Teheran, and as far away as Beijing. It may have been a coincidence, but it was no accident that Trump ordered the assault at the very same time he was pressing China’s president, on a visit to Florida, to play a serious role in curbing North Korea’s rising nuclear threat. Trump had already hinted that the U.S. might take unilateral action in that direction; Thursday’s events in the Middle East demonstrated to President Xi Jinping that this may not be mere talk.
Trump came into office inexperienced in world affairs and with a number of preconceived notions about how American words and actions might influence events. As is always the case with new presidents, even those with long pedigrees, a lot of those preconceived notions are apt to be wrong. But whereas Trump’s predecessor clung to his ideas about how the world should behave whenever he spoke to it, Trump is demonstrating that he is fully prepared to change his mind, with his rhetoric and his actions.
Obama talked about red lines and about how Assad “must go,” but after six years of Syrian carnage that also destabilized Europe, Assad was firmly entrenched when Obama left office. Trump talked about leaving Assad in place, but when Assad perpetrated an unacceptable crime, Trump was quick to show that red lines exist in fact, rather than in words.
The initial reaction was interesting. London, which has its own issues with Europe, praised the American response. Much of the rest of Europe offered tepid reactions, as did several prominent congressional Democrats. Russian President Vladimir Putin predictably was quick to condemn the U.S. action as an unacceptable violation of an independent nation’s sovereignty – this from the man who forcibly grabbed Crimea from Ukraine a few short years ago. At the very moment he condemned the U.S., Putin was still supporting proxy soldiers and his own out-of-uniform commandos in hiving off territory from what remains of Ukraine, as well as Georgia, which still has not regained control over land that Russian-backed insurgents took in 2008.
So much for the theory, propounded by Democrats, that Trump and Putin are in cahoots to steal elections and promote Putin’s agenda.
The way to get a dictator to abandon weapons of mass destruction is to make the cost of keeping them – or even pretending to keep them, or preventing the world from knowing that you don’t keep them – unacceptably high. Saddam Hussein learned that the hard way, after he kicked United Nations inspectors out of his country. Moammar Gadhafi learned from Saddam’s mistake and surrendered his own nuclear program in advance. It did not save Gadhafi’s regime, or ultimately his life, but it may well have meant that the factions still fighting to succeed him were prevented from getting their hands on fissile material – or worse.
Leaving chemical weapons in Syria heightens the risk that those weapons will be used again, and not even necessarily against Syrians. Much of Assad’s dirty work is already outsourced to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, with an assist from Gaza’s Hamas. If either of those groups take home a sarin-bearing weapon or two, we might someday hear about a gas attack in Haifa or Tel Aviv.
The Syria story is a long way from over, and a happy ending is far from assured. But the narrative changed last week in a way that can hardly make things any worse. It stands a good chance of ultimately making them better.