Last night, President Donald Trump ordered a military strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons for at least the second time in the country’s six-year-old civil war. Reports suggest from 50 to 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from two U.S. Navy destroyers, struck a Syrian airfield near Homs—from where it is believed the chemical attack was launched earlier this week. The purpose of the strike, based on statements by administration officials, was punishment for the regime’s violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons and to establish a deterrent against future use.
The situation is still developing, so there are many issues that remain unsettled about what effect these strikes will have and what comes next.
With the scope of the American strike limited to the base from which the attack was launched, a number of national security analysts argue the Trump administration was looking for symbolic effect. An administration official told Reuters last night the attack was a “one-off” strike. And in his statement to the nation last night following the strike, Trump said, “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” In an ironic twist, Donald Trump—who a number of people saw as less likely to get militarily involved in Syria than Hillary Clinton—used military force to defend international norms against chemical weapon use after routinely threatening to damage norms against nuclear proliferation as part of his campaign’s “America First” foreign policy.
For two reasons, it is clear that last night’s strike had little to do with protecting Syrian civilians threatened by the Assad regime. First, it would require a much larger—and, as will be discussed in a moment, riskier—operation to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to menace the civilian population. The Syrian air force remains largely intact after the strike, and the regime retains the capacity to kill large numbers of civilians through a variety of conventional means. Second, President Trump had already demonstrated his callous indifference to Syrian refugees through his attempts to ban them from entering the United States.
If the strike is about deterring future use of chemical weapons, it matters what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does next. If he complies and refrains from future use of chemical weapons, Syria will remain a slaughterhouse, but the Trump administration can claim a political victory and blame the Obama administration for failing to strike Assad forces when chemical weapons were used in 2013.
If Assad does not comply, though, will the Trump administration order more extensive military strike? More extensive strikes would be far more difficult, as they would risk hitting Russian forces operating in Syria, which could lead to military escalation with a nuclear-armed Moscow.
But questions still remain about where the Trump administration stands on Assad. Less than a week ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said Assad’s fate was up to the Syrian people. But Thursday, in light of this week’s chemical weapons attack, Tillerson said the international community was taking steps to remove Assad. Tillerson also said, “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” It is unclear if Tillerson meant removal through military force, but the cost and risk involved in such an operation would be immense.
There is also a line of thinking that Trump may have used the strike to signal resolve to North Korea and to make an impression on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is meeting with the president this weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Given what political scientists have found about the limited transferability of reputation in international politics, neither Xi or North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are going to be more likely to believe future Trump administration coercive threats against them than they were the day before. If trying to bolster American credibility was part of the Trump administration’s calculus for striking Syria, then it has created a great deal of risk for what is likely to be little gain.
And these issues only relate to international politics. None of the above touches on the potentially dubious legality of the strike and its domestic political implications.
The Syrian civil war is both tragic and complex. While it is unpleasant to admit it, the application of American military power is unlikely to make things better. It can, in fact, make them worse.