by Kate Kizer
In Idlib, civilians prepare for a chemical attack by fashioning gas masks out of paper cups and plastic bags. Should the Syrian government initiate such an attack, Trump’s response is predictable. His White House has twice elected to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons with military strikes. Those decisions garnered some bipartisan approval —something Trump will be hoping for again amidst current reports of upheaval in the West Wing.
But a decision to respond militarily to a chemical weapons attack in Syria should be vehemently opposed and condemned.
The first reason is the most obvious: Punitive military strikes do not work. In 2017, Assad launched a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 80 people. The United States retaliated with 59 cruise missiles. In 2018, Assad again used chemical weapons, this time in Douma. Again, Trump—this time joined by allies—conducted a series of military strikes. In both cases, Assad responded by ratcheting up attacks on rebels and civilians alike shortly thereafter. If chemical weapons are used again in Idlib, the message sent by retaliatory airstrikes will have gone unheeded twice. As Assad and his allies finally consolidate government control over the country, there is no indication that a third reminder would produce a better outcome.
Aside from the fact that U.S. strikes also risk direct confrontation with Russia, which could further escalate the conflict, a punitive military strike also operates outside any long-term strategy for establishing security, stability, and accountability in Syria. Instead of dropping bombs, Trump should engage in actual diplomacy, not threats, to end hostilities, and focus on establishing a post-conflict accountability mechanism that offers the war’s countless victims hope for justice.
Besides its inefficacy, a retaliatory strike would not be constitutional or legal under current U.S. statutory authorities. Although horrific, a chemical weapons attack on Syria’s people does not present an imminent threat to the United States. As such, authorization for the use of military force must come from Congress, and there is no existing statutory authorization for U.S. military operations against the Assad regime, nor its Iranian or Russian allies. Trump’s launch of airstrikes with no backlash from Congress would continue a worrying and unaccountable expansion of presidential war powers.
Moreover, a military response to a chemical weapons attack continues to demonstrate that the only solutions in Syria are violent ones. This perspective—shared by all belligerents to the conflict—has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Syria. The United States should seek to disrupt this flawed narrative, not reinforce it.
Despite these obvious drawbacks, punitive military strikes appear seem inevitable, discussed by the United States and its European allies even before chemicals poison Idlib’s air.
When faced with the atrocities of war, any action, even the wrong action, can seem better than no response at all. A punitive military strike—one that demonstrates to Russia that the United States still has a say—feels better than silence. But acting outside a long-term strategy forces the Syrian people to pay the price of assuaging the guilt of outside actors. And the Syrian people have paid enough.
Seven years of war have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees and internally displaced millions more, destroyed the country’s ethnic and demographic fabric, and crippled the country’s economy and infrastructure for decades,. After such devastation, any action that does not have the welfare of the Syrian people at heart is the wrong action. It is past time to put the wellbeing of the Syrian people at the center of the U.S. approach to Syria.
If Trump valued Syrian lives, his administration would not rhetorically support diplomacy while engaging in none. The continued U.S. preoccupation with the issue of chemical weapons—however important—sends the message that the problem in Syria is not the slaughter of civilians. Instead, the problem is the methods used to slaughter them. For the Syrian people, the distinction is irrelevant.
If Trump valued Syrian lives, he would not slam the door shut on refugees fleeing the conflict. He would raise refugee caps and re-designate Temporary Protected Status for Syria. Yet he’s kept his Muslim ban in place and his administration is failing to meet already historically low refugee targets. These steps should be taken before Trump can even think to use humanitarianism as justification for military action.
Idlib’s civilians still might not be forced to use their makeshift gas masks. Perhaps Turkey’s diplomatic efforts will succeed in achieving a ceasefire and the Syrian government will not launch a major assault on Idlib that would threaten the lives of the three million people who live there. But if the worst-case scenario does happen and Syrian and Russian airstrikes begin to hammer Idlib, it’s critical to prepare an alternative to Trump’s likely response. Retaliatory strikes are not a solution.
Kate Kizer is the policy director at Win Without War. She is an expert on US foreign policy and democratization in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @KateKizer.