President Trump ordered a military strike against three targets in Syria on April 14, 2018. The United Kingdom and France partnered in the strike, adding legitimacy to the decision as our European allies employ a much stricter standard for use of force and targeting decisions. The strike was in response to Bashar Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons against his own people, dispensing chlorine gas, and possibly sarin gas, against innocent civilians who were just trying to go about their lives. Trump ordered a similar strike just about one year ago in response to a similar atrocity by Assad. While the three targets were destroyed, military experts and pundits have been questioning the strategy. While it is fair to say the U.S. lacks a clear policy or strategy in Syria, it is also fair to say we absolutely had to act. No action in the face of such barbarism was not an option.
There is valid criticism of the policy and the choice of targets. First, I want to call out those who were circulating a specific meme on social media negatively commenting on the strike. The meme “thanks” Russia and Syria for not striking the U.S. last year in response to the administration’s handling of the Native American protest over the Keystone Pipeline expansion. I strongly disagree with the government action forcing the pipeline through important Native American land and the way they responded to the protests. However, drawing a parallel between that and Assad using chemical weapons is highly offensive and grossly inaccurate. Anyone who asserts such a similarity demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about chemical weapons and the effect they have. That said, there are legitimate challenges to U.S. policy worthy of discussion.
In the immediate sense, destroying those three targets accomplished little. Reportedly, the U.S. fired around 100 missiles from air and sea. The attack likely cost over 250 million dollars (total cost still being assessed and hard to pinpoint other than the cost of each missile – 1.25 million dollars). Unfortunately, there was very little bang for a whole lot of buck. Assad has shown in the past that these efforts to deter future use of chemical weapons are ineffective. He retains the complete support of his patron Russia, thus his hold on power. If strikes will have any impact on Assad or deterrence value, the strikes must deplete his military or impact his grip on power. For example, strikes on military airbases that destroy several aircraft or missile defense systems would have significantly more impact. There is evidence Russia acquiesced to the three targets from Saturday, opting not to use their defensive systems to protect the targets or defeat the strike. Such coordination is nothing new and certainly contributes to the effectiveness of allied missiles and safe return of allied aircraft. The President foolishly taunted Russia and Syria for the ineffectiveness of their systems, failing to shoot down a single U.S. missile. The reality is that if they had employed their defensive systems and not acquiesced to the targets, they most assuredly would have prevented a percentage of the missiles from getting through, making the strike even less effective. In any case, the U.S. and allies had to act in response to Assad’s vicious attack and at least the plan was well executed. Future plans need more thought.
Syria poses a complex foreign policy challenge for the U.S. Bashar Assad, just like his father before him, is a brutal dictator who represses his people and destabilizes the already volatile region. The regime maintains close relations with Iran, who not only props up the Assad regime, but uses Syria as a base of operations for its proxy forces, including Hezbollah, to commit terrorist acts against Syria’s neighbors, conduct training, and work to destabilize the already dangerous region. Groups freely use Syria as a base of operations, freely crossing the borders with Turkey and Iraq for nefarious purposes. ISIS has controlled territory in Syria in its attempt to create a caliphate along with territory it controls in Iraq. Syrian Kurds, just as with Iraqi Kurds, have played a significant role in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. touts successes in Syria (and Iraq) against ISIS and those successes would not have occurred without Kurdish fighters, yet we abandon the Kurds when the fighting ends.
Syria was among President Obama’s foreign policy weaknesses. The infamous “red line” debacle degraded U.S. strategy and credibility in Syria and the region. On the campaign trail President Trump spoke a lot about this, vowing his policy would be one of action. However, thus far the Trump Syria policy, if there is a policy, has been vague and feckless. Part of any U.S. Syria policy must include the Russian influence over the Assad regime. After the strikes, the logical next step would be sanctions against Russia designed to force them to either lessen their support for Assad or use their influence to prevent him from committing additional atrocities against his people. U.N. Ambassador Haley announced sanctions for this very purpose. President Trump then apparently changed course, no longer approving the sanctions. As reported by the Washington Post, he apparently had a temper tantrum because Haley announced the sanctions on TV and he wanted to be the one to do it. Seems plausible, but this also goes to the ongoing strange devotion President Trump has for Vladimir Putin and could very well be the product of direction by Putin. This is likely considering that Russian troops recently attacked U.S. troops in Syria and the U.S. took no action. In fact, the President hasn’t spoken about it.
While we do not want a proxy war with Russia in Syria, the status quo is not acceptable. The Trump Administration, along with future administrations, must have a better-defined policy. First, we need to address Russian influence and support for the regime. Second, we need to take a position on whether U.S. efforts intend to remove the Assad regime and whether we support the Syrian opposition forces to defeat Assad. U.S. special forces are on the ground with Kurds and Syrian opposition groups. They need a clearly defined mission to further our national security interests or they need to come home. Third, we need to address the legitimate sovereignty and autonomy concerns of the Kurds. They have led the fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and proven to be the most reliable partners in those countries. Fourth, Syria must cease its support for Hezbollah and other groups to operate within its borders against neighbors Lebanon and Israel. If Syria wishes to maintain close ties with Iran, they cannot continue to acquiesce to Iranian efforts to destabilize the region and foment the Sunni/Shia conflict. These are complex and difficult challenges. It will not be easy or quick. However, if the U.S. is to remain interested and involved in the region, we must have a thoughtful, intentional Syria policy.