Last week’s dramatic strike in Syria leaves many questions unanswered, but one thing we know for sure: the blob is very excited.
The chorus of commentary in the past few days has offered a variety of breathless responses. President Barack Obama’s critics are dancing in the end zone, crowing that President Donald Trump proved to be the man Obama never was. Jittery Republicans are happy to spend a day not talking about White House drama and Russian election intrigue. Obama administration veterans are self-flagellating that Trump just did what they wanted Obama to do. Pundits are (once again) praising Trump for finally being “presidential,” and heralding his national-security team. Middle East hawks are declaring that the sheriff is back in the region. And astute foreign-policy observers are administering last rites for the “Obama Doctrine.”
So cutting through all this overheated chatter, what just happened? Do Trump’s strikes on Bashir al-Assad’s forces indicate a fundamental shift in American strategy toward the Syrian conflict, and a complete repudiation of Obama? I believe the strikes were justified and necessary, but I don’t see much evidence yet that they were meant to be the game-changers many now claim them to be.
Let’s begin with the infamous August 2013 “red line,” a moment I have written extensively about but will forever be litigated. To claim that Trump simply proved to have the cojones to enforce the “red line” while Obama whiffed is a gross caricature that conveniently overlooks some important context.
To review: in September 2013, Obama was preparing for the use of force — I was one of the Pentagon officials planning for strikes and advocating for Congressional support — but faced stiff resistance from a wary Congress and some loud prominent voices (including, ahem, Donald Trump) casting dire warnings about involvement in the Syria morass. Thankfully, Moscow and Damascus took Obama more seriously than Trump, because the credible threat of force caused the Russians unexpectedly to pressure Assad to come clean on the massive chemical weapons stockpiles he denied having, agree to give them up, and submit to an international coalition to have 1300 tons of them removed and destroyed. Just to put this in context, 1,300 tons is up to ten times more than the CIA wrongly estimated Saddam Hussein to have in Iraq, leaving us this conundrum: the U.S. used force in 2003 to deal with a WMD threat that did not exist; and in 2013, it did not use force to deal with a WMD threat that did.
But wait, you may say, Assad did not give up all his weapons! Yes, after the declared stockpiles were removed in 2014, Assad’s forces manufactured homemade bombs with industrial chemicals like chlorine (which were not covered by the 2013 agreement, but were still illegal) and, as we saw tragically with the attack last week, retained some small number of chemical weapons (something we suspected but could not prove). This certainly diminishes the accomplishment — for which the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — but it does not erase it. Trump is surely glad he is not dealing with a Syria today armed with 1,300 tons of chemical weapons.
When we were planning for strikes four years ago, we worried about two risks: escalation and loss of control. The strikes were to be far more elaborate than what Trump just did, hitting multiple sites over several days to degrade and deter Assad’s forces. We were focused on the danger that Assad would retaliate with further use of chemical weapons, but ultimately believed he could be deterred and would not be tempted to strike back (the Israelis have proved this multiple times over the past few years). We were far more concerned about what would happen to the tons of chemical weapons we would not be able to destroy — the planned strikes would only hit a fraction of his arsenal because it was secretive and widely disbursed — and how easily they could get on the loose.
This illustrates the different context today. While the threat of retaliation still exists, Assad is weaker and has a far less formidable arsenal, so the risks are more manageable than they were in 2013. Moreover, with 1,300 tons of chemical weapons no longer in Syria, there is little danger that any U.S. action might spark a proliferation nightmare. That’s why — as I’ve argued here before — the Obama administration could have better managed the risks of military force in 2015-16, and why Trump had greater leeway to take the shot last week.
Moreover, today the U.S. is already military engaged in Syria, whereas in 2013 it was not. Trump inherited a mature military campaign against the Islamic State that began in September 2014, and since then the U.S. has been bombing Syria every day. American forces have conducted nearly 7,500 airstrikes against targets in Syria, has about 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground. While these forces are carefully aimed against ISIS, not Assad, they help provide capabilities and battlefield awareness that the U.S. did not enjoy four years ago.
Given all this, what makes the strikes last week so interesting is not that they were particularly complicated or unique, but because they were ordered by Trump. During last year’s campaign, Hillary Clinton advocated similar steps — something for which Trump criticized her at the time.
Which brings us to the fundamental question about Trump’s strikes: what purpose do they serve? There has been a lot of feverish bloviating about a “return” to American leadership, but beyond lobbing 59 Tomahawks, there is nothing to suggest the Trump team knows what to do now.
One lesson learned from Obama’s “red line” was that it proved very difficult to achieve a common understanding of the goal. To Obama, the “red line” was always about the specific issue of Syria’s chemical weapons, not the future of Assad or how American military power should be used to shape the underlying dynamics of the Syrian civil war. But at the time and ever since, these issues often got conflated.
The same is true for Trump today. Unlike Obama, Trump has not made much of an effort to explain himself, and his advisors have offered different explanations of the overall goal. The president’s actions were those of an instinctual counter-puncher, a discrete use of military power to punish and deter Assad for using chemical weapons. Despite what many cheerleaders are asserting, I don’t see any evidence the strikes were intended to be an opening salvo in a fundamentally new approach of greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. In this sense, Trump’s action seems akin to President Bill Clinton’s Tomahawk strike on Baghdad in June 1993, to punish Saddam Hussein for trying to kill George H.W. Bush.
But could Trump’s intervention lead to more? This could happen by design, in which the new administration, now more confident in its abilities and feeling the wind at its back, threatens force to gain greater leverage over the Russians and Assad to negotiate a peace. Although such a larger strategy isn’t apparent, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week will be pivotal (although if Russian President Vladmir Putin snubs him, then the visit will be a dud).
The likelier scenario is that greater intervention happens by default. As Obama learned the hard way in Libya, once intervention begins, the logic of deeper involvement is a powerful force — which is a key reason why he was so careful in Syria. As Trump comes under greater pressure to get more deeply involved, he will feel compelled to act to maintain his credibility — and given his almost pathological need to be seen as “tough” and proclivity to shoot before aiming, he seems especially vulnerable. If this happens, Trump — and all of us — will begin the familiar slide down the slippery slope.