The United States has moved swiftly and dramatically to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in a recent attack on a rebel-held town in Northern Syria. On Thursday evening, US warships off the coast of Syria launched a barrage of cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield.
US intelligence had pinpointed the military base as the site from which Syrian air force jets launched their deadly chemical weapons assault. Despite Syrian regime denials that it was responsible — denials echoed by Bashar Assad’s Russian ally — the US strike was based on a confident intelligence assessment that Assad was the guilty party.
President Donald Trump has now demonstrated a willingness to use military force against the Assad regime in ways that his predecessor, Barack Obama, was never prepared to do. Trump’s decision was part gut emotional response, part calculated military measure. In a short speech Trump delivered Thursday evening, the visceral impact on him of the death toll from the chemical-weapons assault was clear.
Trump stated that “using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many; even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Trump’s military calculation appears to have been that the Assad regime (and the wider world, especially North Korea) needed a clear reminder that the US does have red lines and will use force to deter transgressors.
The cruise missile strike was meant to be surgical, avoiding civilian casualties, avoiding any Russian assets in the target zone, taking care to ensure there was no collateral release of stored chemical weapons. Its purpose was, administration officials argue, to degrade Syrian capabilities, and deter the Assad regime from any further use of chemical weapons in the long-running and brutal Syrian civil war.
Trump’s use of limited military force in Syria tells us four things about his volatile and still young administration. One is that Trump, perhaps to the surprise of many, does have a moral compass, even if a selective one. Another is that he is capable of the controlled use of the immense arsenal of US military power, and willing to listen to his military advisers. The third, and hidden element of the cruise missile strike, is the demonstration that the US has eyes on the Syrian target and intelligence capabilities that should help the president in whatever lies ahead for Syria, as long as the president is prepared to use his intelligence community’s assets and knowledge.
Finally, the Trump administration clearly took pains to engage both with domestic political leaders in Congress and key allies in the global community. This was an American strike, but not an “America first” one.
But it is also important to realize that this first US military strike leaves wide open the question: What next? The Trump administration will have to decide whether it is enough to send a military signal to Assad to never again use chemical weapons, or whether it will have to go further to ensure that the regime is stripped of all its chemical weapons capabilities, something the Obama administration tried to ensure through a deal with the Russians in 2013.
Beyond the chemical weapons question, there is the larger issue of coming up with a strategy to deal with the Syrian quagmire. Obama never found an effective one; Trump faces a challenge as major here. In the aftermath of the cruise missile strikes, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the strike did not signal any major change in US strategy towards Syria, which in the early days of the Trump government focused solely on the war against the Islamic State and appeared prepared to accept the survival of the Assad regime. It’s hard to say how such calculations will continue to hold, but beyond these policy inclinations, there appears to be a strategic vacuum.
The Syrian opposition will take some heart from the US strikes and hope for more sustained US action. The Turkish government may step up its call for the creation of safe havens and no-fly zones on Syrian soil. The Israeli government will see the US action as a muscular demonstration of intent.
But what of all the others actors in the many-sided Syrian conflict? Assad will have no option but to draw even closer to his major supporters, Russia and Iran. The US action may make it harder to put space between Putin and his Syrian ally. Russia may well step up its efforts to ensure that the Syrian air force has the air defence capabilities to deter any future US strike, thus heightening the possibility of military escalation through deliberate or inadvertent action. The various terrorist factions at work in Syria will carry on their struggle and may well welcome deeper US engagement.
The Napoleonic war commentator Carl von Clausewitz laid down a perpetually relevant caution about the use of military force, saying that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The problem ahead for the Trump administration is now to figure out what the politics of the Syrian problem should be.
Wesley Wark is a Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. This article was first published by the Ottawa Citizen on 7 April 2017.