Bashar al-Assad’s gas attack on the anniversary of President Trump’s missile strike against his regime was an invitation to get hit again, and the president is indeed promising another strike.
We weren’t enthusiastic over the first one. Assad is, as Trump is now wont to say, an animal. He has destroyed his country in order to rule the rubble. He has brought untold suffering by every means possible and has no compunction about using banned chemical weapons as an instrument of terror.
There is obviously utility in maintaining an international norm against the use of these especially cruel weapons. Our worry about Trump’s first act was that pinprick strikes usually don’t accomplish much and they establish an implied responsibility for ensuring that the regime never resorts to gas again, a foolhardy commitment absent a larger Syrian strategy.
Indeed, Assad’s latest gassing comes on the heels of Trump’s publicly saying that he wants to pull out of Syria entirely. The regime clearly took heed. Now the president is in the position of taking more military action to prevent the use of chemical weapons, on humanitarian grounds, in a conflict he wants to completely wash his hands of. This is awkward, to say the least.
There is no doubt that Trump inherited a mess. As an escape from his red-line fiasco, Obama welcomed the Russians into Syria; and Moscow, together with Iranian forces, then buttressed the regime sufficiently that it now has all but won the civil war.
Trump retroactively enforced Obama’s red line and in so doing created a red line of his own that he is compelled to enforce, especially with North Korea and China watching. The larger question, still, is: What is our strategy in Syria?
We have made considerable progress against ISIS, but there are other considerations. If Syria remains a running sore, it will continue to destabilize the Middle East and, through its refugee flow, Europe. If Russia and Iran are allowed to work their will uncontested, it will be a boon to Russia’s strategic resurgence and to Iran’s drive for regional hegemony.
We shouldn’t contemplate overthrowing Assad; we’re not in a position to accomplish that. But we should try to expand the territory held by our allies, toward the longer-term goal of a diplomatic settlement. Via carrots and sticks, we should push the Turks to work with us, their NATO ally, rather than Russia and Iran. Any of our reconstruction assistance should flow only to areas controlled by our proxies. We should back Israel in its shadow war with Iranian forces. We should exact whatever price we can, diplomatically and in increased sanctions, for the complicity of Russia and Iran in Assad’s barbarity.
And we should get an authorization from Congress for using force in Syria rather than stretching Bush-era authorizations to justify red-line strikes and other operations in the country.
One way or the other, the missiles are going to fly. What remains to be seen is if this the beginning of a more robust Syria strategy or a substitute for one.