The Corner

National Security & Defense

Trump Strikes Syria — Three Quick Thoughts

Earlier tonight, American forces launched a Tomahawk missile strike against Syrian regime targets. Here’s the Washington Post with early details:

The U.S. military launched approximately 50 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield late on Thursday, in the first direct American assault on the government of President Bashar al-Assad since that country’s civil war began six years ago.

The operation, which the Trump administration authorized in retaliation for a chemical attack killing scores of civilians this week, dramatically expands U.S. military involvement in Syria and exposes the United States to heightened risk of direct confrontation with Russia and Iran, both backing Assad in his attempt to crush his opposition.

President Trump said the strike was in the “vital national security interest” of the United States and called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

In addition, it’s now being widely reported that American officials notified Russia of its intent to strike — likely in an effort to avoid killing any Russians on the ground and escalating the conflict. Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, clearly and unequivocally condemned Russian actions:

BREAKING: Sec of State Tillerson says “either Russia has been complicit, or simply incompetent” in preventing Syria’s chem gas attack.

— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) April 7, 2017

I have three quick thoughts. First, if this is the only strike, unless it was extraordinarily and unusually effective, it has little chance of materially impacting the Assad regime or the course of the civil war itself. Even if it persuades Assad to refrain from dropping gas bombs, he’ll doubtless continue his campaign of mass murder with barrel bombs, cluster bombs, area bombing, and mass executions. We’re in the midst of a six-year-long war crime, and it shows no sign of abating. 

Second, history has shown that there can be a cost even to casualty-free (on our side) aerial attacks. If America strikes a dictator (or a terrorist), and the dictator survives, they don’t always take the message we want. Osama bin Laden gained an actual propaganda victory from American missile attacks in 1998. In 1986, Reagan bombed Libya. In 1988, Libyans downed Pan Am Flight 103. If the dust settles and the Syrian status quo seems to hold except for deterring further chemical weapons use, that’s not necessarily proof that we “won.” It takes time to know the true consequences of even the most limited military actions.

Third, this statement, from Tillerson, is mystifying:

Tillerson tells reporters that missile strikes do NOT represent change in US policy toward Syria

— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) April 7, 2017

Clearly, attacking a sovereign nation that did not attack us is a policy change. It’s a policy change that should require congressional approval, in fact. It remains to be seen, but this statement (combined with President Trump’s declaration that he ordered “a targeted military strike“) seems to indicate that the administration hopes to punish Assad and then proceed with more or less business as usual. We’ll find out soon enough.