April 7, 2017
Trump inherited the Syrian catastrophe from Barack Obama, and his initial
instincts were to accept the awful status quo. But Bashar Assad’s latest
chemical attack has galvanized his Administration to think anew, and Mr.
Trump’s decision Thursday to launch a retaliatory missile strike is an
important first step to save lives, enforce global order, and improve the
strategic outlook for the U.S. and its allies.
Trump starts with the reality that Mr. Obama’s long abdication has left the
U.S. with far less leverage than it had when the civil war began in 2011. Iran
has become Mr. Assad’s protector on the ground via arms supplies and Hezbollah,
and Russia has moved in as a military patron and patroller of the skies. The
Muslim opposition the U.S. has been feebly trying to train and arm has been
degraded while Mr. Assad and the Russians leave Islamic State to the Kurds and
the U.S.-led coalition.
recently as last week Mr. Trump seemed willing to surrender to this circumstance
and do nothing beyond defeating ISIS in Syria’s east. This was reflected in
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments last week that Mr. Assad was here
to stay and the future of Syria would be “decided by the Syrian people.”
That’s John Kerry-speak for capitulation, and it may have led Mr. Assad to
believe he could unleash more chemical hell.
Trump also seemed to be courting an accommodation with Russia in Syria, but that
road leads to more strategic retreat. Vladimir Putin’s price for restraining
Mr. Assad would be steep: U.S. recognition of his conquests in Ukraine and the
end of sanctions. This would erode the U.S.-Europe alliance and make Mr. Putin
look like a hero back home. Iran might not cooperate in any case, and its goal
is an arc of Shiite power from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to the
alternative to this surrender is to reassert U.S. influence with diplomacy and
military force, and Mr. Assad’s chemical attack is the opening. Mr. Trump may
understand this as he ordered an attack on the air base from which the chemical
attack was launched, and Mr. Tillerson said Thursday that Mr. Assad has no
future in Syria.
quickest way to punish Mr. Assad for his aerial chemical attacks, and to ensure
they won’t happen again, is to destroy his air power. This is the plan that
Mr. Obama flinched at in 2013 when he let Mr. Assad cross his “red line.” He
has now crossed that line again—this time after having promised to destroy his
Thursday the U.S. struck only a single airfield, though Mr. Assad has six active
airfields used in the war. The U.S. used cruise missiles from outside Syrian air
space, which avoided engagement with Russian-manned air defenses. The Pentagon
provided the firepower, though we wish Arabs and Europeans could have been
included to show the international rejection of Mr. Assad’s war crimes.
Putin could escalate and engage U.S. forces. But Mr. Obama used that excuse to
talk himself into doing nothing, and our guess is that Mr. Putin would shrink
from fighting the U.S. lest he risk the humiliation of major losses. As for
Russians on the ground, a U.S. source told the press they were forewarned about
the attack to avoid casualties.
stronger attack would have destroyed Syria’s entire air force, and another
good step would be for the U.S. and its allies to create the “safe zones”
inside Syria that Mr. Trump promised during the campaign. This would be enforced
by U.S. and allied air sorties plus renewed military supplies for the
opposition. The humanitarian effort would show the U.S. purpose includes
protecting the Syrian people. An international force could provide support for
havens in multiple locations near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.
military operation carries risks but this one could also have major political
and strategic benefits if Mr. Trump follows the air strike with some forceful
diplomacy. The demonstration of renewed U.S. purpose in the region could have an
electrifying impact across the Middle East. The Saudis, the Gulf Sunni states
and Turkey would begin to rethink their accommodation to the Russia-Assad-Iran
axis of dominance that none of them wants.
Trump also needs to make Russia and Iran begin to pay a price for their support
for Mr. Assad’s depredations. They have had no incentive to negotiate an end
to the civil war because they see themselves on the road to a relatively
cost-free victory. That calculus may change if it looks like the costs of
intervening are rising and Mr. Assad is no longer a sure winner.
Trump Administration has to think about the kind of long-term solution it would
like in Syria—perhaps a partition into ethnic enclaves—but the chances of
getting there are better if the opposition has safe zones and Mr. Assad can’t
maraud with impunity.
larger point for Mr. Trump to recognize is that he is being tested. The
world—friend and foe—is watching to see how he responds to Mr. Assad’s war
crime. His quick air strike on the evening he was having dinner with Chinese
President Xi Jinping makes clear that the Obama era is over. If he now follows
with action to protect Syrian civilians and construct an anti-Assad coalition,
he may find that new strategic possibilities open up to enhance U.S. interests
and make the Middle East more stable.