President Trump hit a Syrian airfield with dozens of Tomahawk missiles.
The strike was notable for its rapidity – about 72 hours after the Assad chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians — and for the swift reversal it represented in what had been the administration’s tolerant attitude toward the Assad regime.
If it is a one-off, this strike is the very definition of a symbolic pinprick. It was launched with highly precise weapons against the airfield from which the Syrian chemical attack emanated. According to reports, we apprised Russian personnel at the base beforehand, meaning the Syrians effectively had advance warning as well.
We are skeptical of the wisdom of this approach. It may be that the strike is enough to deter Assad from future chemical attacks, but it also could have unwelcome unintended consequences.
If Assad decides to defy us, we will be forced into further action against his regime without any idea of what would replace it.
Syria has only gotten more complicated since the last time a president considered retaliating against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. President Obama’s red-line fiasco led to a sham “deal” in which Syria pretended to agree to destroy its chemical arsenal, and in which the U.S. ultimately gave Russia a free hand to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Since 2013, Russia has worked with its Iranian and Syrian partners to decimate the Syrian opposition and secure regime control over Syria’s largest cities. Meanwhile, ISIS rose, reached its high-water mark, and now is in retreat, with American allies and even American soldiers pushing it back into its last Syrian and Iraqi strongholds.
In other words, the situation is in many ways more perilous than it was a few years ago. Russia is in position to resist any further U.S. attacks that are strong enough to weaken the regime, adding another element of risk. Moreover, Russian and Syrian assaults on Syrian rebels have been so effective that there is even less hope (to the extent that it ever existed) that a secular or moderate opposition could take power. Jihadists are most likely to benefit from a near-term regime collapse.
This means that the U.S. should be playing a longer game. American-allied forces have gained ground against ISIS and now seem set not only to defeat ISIS in its “capital” city of Raqqa but also to dominate northern Syria going forward. These advances should allow the U.S. to confine Assad to his western strongholds and may help provide sanctuaries from oppression for fleeing refugees. From this position, we can consider options in the next stage of the Syrian civil war, which must be part of a broader strategy with our allies that includes a plausible vision of a post-Assad Syria.
At the same time, America can still use sanctions to impose a high economic cost on Russia and Iran, the two powers most responsible for propping up Assad’s murderous regime. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was appropriately tough in his statement last night about Russia’s presumed complicity in Assad’s chemical attack.
Thanks in part to Obama’s weakness and especially to the support of the Syrian regime’s cynical, bloody-minded allies, Assad has decisively gained the upper hand in his country’s civil war. Trying to reverse that will be the work of years, and is unlikely to be advanced by a quick reaction to horrifying images of Assad’s latest war crime.