By all accounts, Friday night’s strikes against the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons facilities were successful — they reduced their targets to rubble, and there were no reported threats to allied forces or equipment in their aftermath. Armchair strategists are quick to point out that the strikes didn’t fit into any broader American Syria strategy. But the chemical-weapons attack of April 7 demonstrated, once again, the Syrian regime’s flagrant disregard for international moral and legal norms. And unlike last April’s retaliatory American strike on aircraft used for chemical-weapons delivery at Shayrat Air Base, Friday’s strikes sought to hit the heart of the regime’s chemical-weapons capabilities, and were coordinated with our oldest and closest allies.
They also marked a departure from Obama-era analysis paralysis in Syria. It was the Obama administration that delayed striking Assad and preventing future chemical-weapons attacks almost five years ago. It was the Obama administration that argued chlorine gas was a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2014, though it was widely known to be used on the Syrian battlefield throughout Obama’s time in office. It was the Obama administration that was caught by strategic surprise when the leadership vacuum left by the United States led the Russians to enter the Syrian fray in the fall of 2015, bringing with them high-tech military equipment for battlefield testing and deployability and bolstering their standing on the world stage. It was the Obama administration that argued a false choice between catastrophic nuclear war and limited strikes on targeted regime elements.
Obama-era officials have sought to spin the Trump administration’s strikes as a show of weakness, proof of a fear of going after regime targets. They conveniently forget that they let the devastation fester and worsen for five years, forgoing opportunities to shift the balance in the early days when they had the chance. They also ignore the fact that the deconfliction line appears to be working: The Trump administration’s response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis did not lead to nuclear war, or any other catastrophic blowback.
While the narrow operational aims of this strike were achieved, no one should have any illusions about the challenges ahead. The Syrian conflict remains a hodgepodge of interests, challenges, adversaries, and knock-on effects in one troubled region; one operational success of course will not beget a broader strategic end state, so there is still much to unpack. Pulling U.S. forces out of Syria abruptly could invite further chemical-weapons usage by Assad or the return of ISIS, prompting a repeat of Iraq’s descent into chaos after President Obama prematurely withdrew American forces from the country in 2011. Further embroiling U.S. troops in a tinderbox conflict with two formidable adversaries on the side of the opposition is also dangerous and costly. These are questions the Trump administration, and U.S. allies, will have to consider in the coming days.
The long-term costs of these conflicts will also require considerable thought. The National Defense Strategy the administration released in January fingers Russia and China as major U.S. adversaries. The more resources devoted to the broader conflict in Syria, the less we can spend preparing for a future conflict with Beijing or Moscow, modernizing the joint force for the high-tech battlefield to come. The United States alone will never be able to fix every global wrong. The White House and Pentagon leadership will have to analyze these complex questions as they determine America’s strategy for engaging around the world with limited resources.
But while Obama administration officials are busy reliving their internal debates and projecting their conclusions onto this White House’s actions, it is clear today that President Obama’s red line is finally being enforced, and that is a victory worth celebrating.