It was only several days ago that I put up a post criticizing the Trump administration for signaling, through Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, that the United States was content to allow Assad to remain in power. In short order, that breathing space (apparently) emboldened Assad to deploy a sarin gas attack against his own people. I argued that the soft-pedaling on Assad made the US look weak, and also gave up significant ground on our support for human rights.
Obviously, the one-two punch of Syria and North Korea of this past week has led Trump himself to reconsider his foreign policy, as demonstrated by the swift shakeup of the principals committee of the National Security Council, with Bannon being removed and more conventional NSC staff taking two spots.
This resulted in a swiftly made decision to launch what I’d have to concede was a limited and proportional strike against Assad. Undoubtedly, the scope of this engagement was a direct product of the new NSC team’s experience and leadership (bonus fact to steam the buns of Trump loyalists: Hillary Clinton recommended hitting the airstrip where the chem attack was launched from hours before Trump did just that).
So, we have a limited strike, being termed a “warning shot” in direct response to Assad’s transgressions, which we have to note was a violation of the Geneva Convention as well as Assad’s US and Russia-brokered agreement to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles. It was an atrocity by any moral or human standards, and it was not necessarily out of line to do this.
But we also have to realize the quagmire that Syria represents. Both Russia and Iran prop up Assad, and therefore, this strike brings the US into potential confrontation with both. It was against this backdrop, in 2013, that Obama, knowing how war-weary the American public was, said that he’d strike Assad in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons if Congress told him to. The Republican-controlled House and Senate had no desire to take ownership of any of the potential consequences of hitting the country, which could lead to all kinds of escalation, and never held the vote. They preferred to maintain their ability to sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs at Obama, whatever he decided to do. And there has been some justified criticism of Obama’s failure to dish out some consequences to Assad after Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons.
But Obama was shrewd in leaving it to Congress, who just didn’t have the appetite for it. Now, Trump has taken unilateral action against a sovereign nation, which also generally constitutes a violation of international law. There is, however, a recognized doctrine that acting in defense of human rights can be an exception to that broad doctrine recognizing the inherent sovereignty of nations.
So, was this a smart move? Time will tell. On its face, the strike serves Trump’s domestic political interests extremely well, assuming it doesn’t end up blowing up in his face. He’s been under criticism (and investigation) for possibly colluding with Russia during the campaign, and this strike seems on the surface at least to undercut the narrative of Trump as a Kremlin puppet.
Unless this was an orchestrated bit of political/military theater which was carried out with Putin’s knowledge, approval, or perhaps even directive. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider the remotest possibility of such a thing, but with Trump and all the unanswered questions concerning Russian intervention in the election and his campaign staff’s shadowy contacts with Russian intelligence operatives, you just can’t take anything at face value. America is a bigger prize than Syria for Russia any day of the week. If Trump really was trying to further Putin’s interests, giving Trump a domestic win at home would be a smart play for Russia. Before you get all angry at me, I am NOT concluding that this is all a scam between Trump and Russia. It is very possible that Trump’s personal view of Assad changed with recent events. It is possible that he views any business his campaign had with Russia (and I do believe there was complicity there) is over. Anything is possible. But the greatest possibility is that this is all for entertainment and distraction. A domestic win to prop up a beleaguered president with falling poll numbers.
And this will give him a win, without any doubt. Sure, there are some Trump supporters who wanted him to be a non-interventionist, and some of them may be getting off the Trump train over this hawkish move. But in the larger sense, America saw children being gassed to death; lashing out against that is ALWAYS going to placate your average NASCAR Republican, and indeed, there is a satisfying element to punishment of such an atrocity for many people of many political stripes. That is understandable.
But exactly how well have Trump and his advisers thought this out? It certainly was a rash turnabout from this administration’s previous positions. A few weeks ago, Syrian refugees were all potential terrorists who couldn’t be allowed into this country. Tillerson and Haley gave unequivocal statements before the chemical attacks that the US was not interested in disturbing Assad’s hold on power. During the campaign, Trump said that fighting both Assad and ISIS in Syria was “madness and idiocy.” And yet, that is exactly what we find ourselves engaged in now.
Where does this lead? Already, Russia and Iran have both condemned the strike as a violation of international law, which is clearly hypocritical in view of the fact that Assad’s conduct was also. Russia has also negated a memorandum of understanding between itself and the US which essentially guaranteed the safety of US warplanes in the busy skies over Syria – leading for the potential for a US fighter to be taken out by a Russian one – a scenario which presents huge risks of escalation between the world’s two greatest nuclear superpowers. So too, Iran could decide that it is appropriate (it’s not) to launch a retaliatory strike against Israel, which could also draw us into a deeper and more drawn out conflict, potentially risk the continued viability of the Iran nuclear deal, and lead to Iran emerging as another nuclear power in the region.
Now there are noises coming from the administration that are distinctly troubling. Tillerson says there is “no room” for Assad to continue his role in Syria. That implies that we may attempt to engage in regime change – which didn’t go so well in Iraq. Taking down Assad may leave room for ISIS to fill the void. And we certainly have no plan for post-Assad Syria. Even if we did, how likely is it that things would go according to our plan?
It is far too early to know what is going to happen. The ink is barely dry on the airstrike order. Russia’s moves to escalate or not may tell us much. But this still has the feel of a rudderless and volatile foreign policy.
And all of this is happening while a true nightmare scenario is developing in the East China Sea. The world may be slouching toward war faster than anyone realizes.