Yesterday, President Trump put Assad on notice.
Facing Assad’s latest chemical atrocity, Trump’s anger was visible. There was an unusually somber quality to the president at his press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan. Referencing other recent chemical attacks, Trump showed his understanding that Assad has no regard for innocent life.
And Trump will be aware that he must now respond to Assad. If he does not, the binding of his powerful words with practiced impotence will fray his credibility. This will become Obama red lines part deux.
Still, whatever he does, Trump’s response must satisfy two criteria. First, it must be overt and significant. Unless Assad and the world recognize America’s response, its strategic import will be limited. Trump must show he means business. Second, the action must serve a broader strategy in Syria. It must be more than a shot in the dark to sate emotional needs.
From my perspective, three options meet these demands.
Air Strikes on Syrian-Regime Targets
The Syrian government has delineated military and intelligence offices that could be targeted with marginal risk to civilians. Regardless, the top officers in Assad’s inner circle are complicit in his murder. Since the civil war began in 2011, many have been promoted for a simple reason: They have shown skill in torturing and killing their fellow citizens. U.S. and allied intelligence services also closely monitor Assad’s chemical (especially nerve-agent) stockpiles and forces. For the U.S., alongside the British and French air forces, to hit these would send a clear message to the regime.
Pursuant to broader strategy, it would also introduce a new calculus for Assad’s overlord, Vladimir Putin. In short, the Russian president would realize that Trump’s Syria negotiating strategy has hard contours. This understanding is crucial. John Kerry’s merry-go-round waltzes with Lavrov prove what happens when Russia believes that the U.S. is irresolute. The Russians strangle the initiative in Assad’s favor.
Yes, Assad may try to counter-pressure the United States either via Iranian proxies or Russian harassing actions in northern Syria. If he is truly stupid he may use his own forces to that end. But Trump has insulation in his unpredictability and his greater power. U.S. military forces have the capacity (recently reinforced) in both Iraq and Syria to contest these threats.
Moreover, the strategic calculus of both Russia and Iran is ultimately rational. If the U.S. is willing to leverage influence in Syria, they will come to the table ready to compromise.
Introduce New Sanctions on Putin and Demand Assad’s Removal
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Syrian civil war won’t end until Assad goes. Those who present Assad as a necessary bulwark against ISIS are deluded. They ignore the second-order effects of Assad’s bloodletting of Sunnis: fueling ISIS recruitment and escalated support for Salafi-terrorist groups by the Sunni monarchies.
But it’s equally important here that Putin understand that Assad is a difficulty rather than a utility. Sanctions on Russian finance in Europe would be a good escalation toward that end. And Theresa May’s British government might support such action (London is the global playground for Russian funny money). Of course, this depends on Trump’s willingness to aggravate Putin and oppose Russian money.
Reinforce Rebel Supply Lines from Turkey to the Idlib Governate
Idlib province is now the last great bastion of the Sunni rebellion. As such, and as I predicted in December (point four), it was inevitable that the Assad axis would pummel Idlib’s civilian population. But if Trump really wants to bring Assad to kneel, and the Russians to serious negotiations, he must empower moderate rebels in Idlib.
Toward that end, he must influence President Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan has qualified his support for the rebels under pressure from Putin, who has both posed threats to his government and by praised him for his coup-survival skills. And that’s a big problem. Idlib’s border with Turkey is the rebels’ priceless supply line. Fortunately, Trump has sticks and carrots with which to persuade Erdogan.
Additionally, Trump should authorize the deployment of anti-air (if user-specific safeguards are applied to prevent non-U.S.-aligned groups from using them) and greater anti-armor capabilities to U.S.-aligned rebel formations in Idlib. This matters not just in empowering greater resistance against Assad but also in helping those groups counterbalance terrorist groups in the governate. At present, those terrorist groups, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, are dominating the anti-Assad effort. That success sucks manpower, resources, and ideological moderation out of the rebellion.
All this said, I suspect that Trump has probably decided on a course of action. Likely the first one. America’s major Sunni partners have been visiting Washington in recent days. The Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians will all have told Trump that Assad is incompatible with an end to the Syrian civil war. And King Abdullah of Jordan would have told Trump of the millions of Syrian refugees now living in his nation. More important, Defense Secretary Mattis believes in overt U.S. leadership in the Middle East. And Trump likes Mattis.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for Opportunity Lives and National Review, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Email him at Thomas.RoganE@Gmail.com.