by Robert E. Hunter
To borrow an old Washington saying, President Donald Trump now “owns Syria.” That would probably have been true anyway, but with the cruise missile attacks on the Shayrat air base, the conclusion is now inescapable.
It should not be the place of outsiders to try speculating on the “why” of President Trump’s decision, but rather to assess the implications, regardless of motive.
As one effect, he has now redeemed President Barack Obama’s pledge regarding a “red-line” against the use of poison gas by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whether the current use was deliberate or (unlikely) a failure of “command and control” within the Syrian military. Trump has acted where Obama did not. Of course, Obama was handicapped when the British government jumped ship at the last moment after a vote by the House of Commons, whereas London has endorsed the US strike following the gassing of civilians at Khan Sheikhoun this past week. But Obama also was of two minds because of the possibility that US military action in response to Assad’s crossing of the red-line could draw the United States militarily more deeply into the Syrian Civil War. His caution could be encapsulated in a two-word question that leaders always need to pose: “What next?”
President Trump has also dealt with a perception created by a March 30 statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that “the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Whatever Tillerson meant to convey, this seemed to give a green light to Assad to do what he pleased. Think Dean Acheson’s leaving Korea out of the US Pacific defensive perimeter in January 1950, which was followed by the invasion of South Korea. Or Washington instructing the US ambassador to Iraq to tell Saddam Hussein in July 1990 that “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait,” after which Saddam Hussein’s invasion followed. As in Korea and Kuwait, through its military response, the US has now reversed itself, both in actions and words. Tillerson has now said: “With the acts that [Assad] has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
What the United States does to follow up on the strike depends in part on the Russian Federation. Direct US intervention in the Syrian Civil War comes a week before Tillerson goes to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other officials. Russia has already condemned the US military action as “a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state.” The Russian prime minister tweeted: “On the verge of a military clash with Russia,” and Moscow suspended an agreement with the US to “deconflict” each side’s air operations over Syria. How much of this Russian reaction is posturing for position and effect is unknowable, but it cannot just be dismissed as bluster.
Tillerson’s impending meetings in Moscow had to be on the minds of Trump administration decision-makers. Was the attack in Syria designed in part to show President Vladimir Putin how serious the US is in its efforts to get Russia to stop backing Assad? Or to create bargaining leverage, in general, against assertive Russian actions, including those in Central Europe? Even if not a conscious motive, it is part of the diplomatic landscape.
Again, it should not be the job of outsiders to suggest tactics for the days ahead. But they can talk about larger strategic issues.
After not even 100 days in office, the Trump administration still does not have in place a clearly established and functioning process for comprehensively reviewing US interests in the Middle East (or elsewhere), the crafting of strategies to achieve those interests, and the interrelationship of the many overlapping aspects of policy, from North Africa and the Persian Gulf Arab states to Iran and Russia and all that’s at stake in Europe following Russian intervention in Ukraine. To be fair, it would be virtually unprecedented if any new administration at this point had done more than just begin to think of the various actions and interactions that are involved (think John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs or Bill Clinton and Somalia). Only this week, for example, President Trump revised the structure of the National Security Council system—in the process removing the intensely polarizing Steve Bannon—to bring it into line with that of at least the preceding six administrations. Nevertheless, with almost no officials even nominated to fill senior State Department slots, the Trump administration has set a record for delay in getting its national security team up and running.
At least four factors now stand out in the aftermath of the Syria strikes. First, the United States will no longer be able to focus just on destroying the Islamic State. From here on, the US has put itself in the position of having simultaneously to exert leadership on dealing with Syria and Bashar al-Assad.
Second, the United States will no longer be able to keep Syria separate from its overall relations with Russia, not just in that region but also regarding other parts of the world, especially Europe. Until now, it was possible to argue that Russia’s involvement in Syria, while important, was not central to overall US-Russian relations, including the future of Ukraine and European security. Further, the US has now put at some risk the potential for cooperation with Russia over Islamist terrorism, which also threatens Russia as this week’s bombing in the St. Petersburg subway once again demonstrated.
Third, the United States can no longer refuse to see what is happening in Syria as connected to the basic geopolitical struggle accelerated by the US-led invasion of Iraq 14 years ago. That intervention upended Sunni-minority rule over the Shia and Kurdish majority, thus leading to frantic efforts by almost all the region’s Sunni-majority states—from Egypt and Turkey through the Persian Gulf monarchies, notably Saudi Arabia—to regain preeminence. That has been in part couched in terms of the struggle with Shia (and non-Arab) Iran, but also in intensified Sunni repression in Bahrain, Saudi aggression in Yemen, and, most important, the effort to topple Alawite-minority rule in majority non-Alawite Syria.
Fourth, the Trump administration will not be able to avoid serious strategic analysis and planning for the Middle East, North Africa, and southwest Asia as a whole, now including the Russian dimension. The George W. Bush administration failed to undertake such a process, with terrible results. The Obama administration, save for the nuclear agreement with Iran, followed this same pattern. The Trump administration can’t afford to make this same mistake—or else the current mess in the Middle East will potentially escalate militarily out of control.
Ironically, the cruise missile strikes on Syria came on the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. From then until recent years, the United States tended more or less to get things right in terms of the application of power and purpose (with some notably exceptions, as with failure to join the League of Nations, the Vietnam War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) From the end of World War II onward, the United States could be counted on to be the mainstay of a globe-spanning effort to reduce the risks of major conflict. This administration has departed from this tradition. So far, no one has stepped up to take America’s place.