By John Ubaldi,
Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump as president, he has shown himself to be flexible in changing his position when a different situation presents itself. This flexibility was never more evident than when the United States attacked Syria on April 7, 2017, for its use of chemical weapons against its own people.
Throughout the presidential campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly stated that the U.S. has spent far too much blood and money in the Middle East with little to show for it.
Since becoming president, however, Trump has given mixed signals about his Syria policy. His administration even hinted that the U.S. would tolerate Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad remaining in power and not implement a policy of regime change.
Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons on Its Own Citizens Was a Game Changer
The situation changed when Assad used chemical weapons to attack his own people, killing least 74 people, including 16 women and 23 children. More than 350 other civilians were wounded, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.
On Thursday, President Trump addressed the nation saying, “On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
In retaliation, Trump ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria where the chemical attack was launched. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said. “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.”
Syria’s Attack on Its Citizens Was Trump’s First Real Test as President
The chemical attack on Syrian civilians was the first real test of Trump’s presidency. According to military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “Trump listened to his expert advisors, proved to be flexible in changing his position, chose an option proportionate to the task, communicated effectively with Russia to avoid Russian losses and acted quickly. He neither failed to act, nor did he overreact, and he sent a clear message that the United States would not only confront a localized threat – but would act in spite of Russian pressure.”
Use of Force Sends Powerful Message to Russia and US Allies
The military strike also sent a strong signal that the U.S. was prepared to stand up to Russia, Syria’s principal backer. Whether this stance has the potential to keep Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, only time will tell.
But Trump’s action sent an unequivocal message to our allies in the region that America will use force when necessary and will establish and enforce its own “red lines.” This resolve is something many of the Sunni Arab nations openly questioned about the Obama administration.
The missile strike might also have changed the strategic position of the United States. From having solely looked at terrorism through the lens of non-state actors, the U.S. is now shifting its gaze toward secular state sponsors of terrorism by authoritarian regimes such as Assad’s Syria.
Obama Administration Sent Wrong Signals to Syria
The failure of the United States to act when Assad used chemical weapons in 2013 and the Syrian air force’s repeated use of barrel bombs sent the wrong signal to the Syrian leader. Assad believed he could act with impunity, knowing he had the backing of Russia and the West would do nothing to stop him.
The backing of pro-Syrian forces, along with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, drove anti-Assad forces and civilians to cluster in and around Idlib. Assad believed that his poison gas attack would create fear among the civilian population and allow him to grab more territory and weaken the opposition to his regime.
One US Strike Will Not Alter Course of Syrian Civil War
No one should be under the illusion that a single strike by the United States will dramatically alter the course of the Syrian civil war.
The Trump administration has limited options, considering Americans’ resistance to any large-scale U.S. presence in the region. At present, no one is actually contemplating such a move.
Trump has always stated that he wants to destroy the Islamic State, but what would follow the defeat of ISIS? No one has spoken of that key issue.
At present, Syria is fragmented into various warring factions. ISIS is in the eastern part of Syria, pro-Assad forces control other areas and al-Qaeda is also a player in the turmoil. Forces loyal to the Syrian president decimated rebel forces backed by the Obama administration.
What Are US Options in Syria?
Options inside Syria are not great. But the U.S. would have a range of options with the use of massive ground forces.
The first option would be to make it crystal clear that any future use of chemical weapon attacks on civilians, including the use of barrel bombs and aircraft to attack civilians, will unleash a massive U.S. military response beyond what occurred last Thursday.
The Syrian military action came at a time when two principal allies in the region, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Abdel el-Sisi of Egypt, were visiting the United States. Both leaders spoke of their confidence in President Trump.
The United States needs to build on this relationship and foster partnerships with our Gulf allies in dealing with not only Syria, but also with issues throughout the Middle East. The United States has other options as well.
War hawks call for the complete destruction of the Syrian air force. That could be an overreaction. But this option could also be a useful tool if Assad continues his genocide against his own people.
What the U.S. must not do is tolerate continued attacks by the Assad forces against the Syrian people, or believe in some delusional hope that Russia will somehow acquiesce in working to end the Syrian civil war.
The goal for the United States is to find a way to end the suffering of the Syrian people without focusing solely on the chemical attack. It is in the national security interests of the U.S. to find a way to end the carnage in Syria.