The Fight Against the Islamic State Just Got Harder
Initial thoughts on the Trump administration’s new front in the Syrian war.
So much for predictions: 24 hours after I confidently and publicly predicted the Trump administration was unlikely to strike the Assad regime, they did just that. On balance, I am glad I was wrong: I thought it a mistake not to have struck the Assad regime in 2013, when it first used chemical weapons in a large-scale attack, and I think the benefits of Thursday’s strikes outweigh the costs, even if I wrote in these pages about my real reservations about going down this path.
We’ll learn much more in the coming days, but here are two quick take-aways from the Trump administration’s decision to strike the Assad regime:
The U.S. hand in negotiations over the fate of Bashar al-Assad is now strengthened. The Trump administration—in an about-face that’s left observers with whiplash—is now talking about the need for Bashar al-Assad to go.
That was the policy of the Obama administration as well, but poor John Kerry was left to bring that about in the last years of the administration with very few carrots and no sticks at his disposal. President Obama did not want to strike the regime, understandably uneasy about where such strikes might lead and not wanting to take everyone’s eye off the ball with respect to the Islamic State.
That did not stop the administration from pursuing quixotic and ultimately humiliating negotiations with the Russians throughout 2016. With the use of force off the table, we were forced to engage with the Russians over the fate of East Aleppo, in particular, as if the Russians were genuine partners for peace and not in fact enabling the very deliberate, brutal regime offensive that brought the last stronghold of the moderate opposition in Syria to its knees. We initially offered up carrots—such as increased military and intelligence cooperation with the Russians against Islamist extremists—if they would help us remove Bashar al-Assad from power, but by the end, we were practically begging the Russians to just let humanitarian aid shipments into East Aleppo. As one of the U.S. negotiators, I found the whole experience degrading.
Boy, that’s not the position Rex Tillerson is in now. Secretary Tillerson—who, I hear, has far less patience for the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, than John Kerry did—can now walk into negotiations with everyone at the table understanding this president is willing to use force in a way his predecessor was not. It’s not quite time for Bashar al-Assad to go shopping for dachas in Sochi, but he might want to retain a real estate agent just in case.
The fight against the Islamic State just got harder . I had two big fears about striking the Assad regime. The first was that we might inadvertently kill some Russians. The Russian presence in Syria is much more robust than it was in 2013. The Trump administration mitigated that risk by loudly telegraphing its pass in a way that seems to have given the Russians plenty of advance warning.
My second fear was that this would greatly complicate the fight against the Islamic State. For the past two years, U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown in and around one of the world’s more robust air defense systems without the Syrian regime harassing the pilots. We had a few incidents where Russian jets got too close to U.S. aircraft or Syrian anti-aircraft radar lit up U.S. or coalition aircraft, but for the most part, the air war has gone forward unimpeded.
Both Russia and the Syrian regime, though, are still well-positioned to play the spoiler. They can affect the flights of U.S. aircraft in eastern Syria by activating their air defenses and have, in recent months, brought in more advanced air-defense weaponry that has even the Israelis nervous. They’ve also “accidentally” struck U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the Islamic State.
How will the regime respond? I have no idea. Perhaps, now that they understand force is on the table, they will meekly accept what the United States has just done. Or they can begin to harass coalition pilots or more U.S.-allied rebels. Again, I don’t know. But I do know that America’s coalition partners in Syria and Iraq are all likely much more nervous about what this means for their own forces. Secretary Mattis is going to need to make some calls to soothe some jittery allies.
I have a lot of other thoughts and questions about Thursday’s strikes, including wondering how Congress will respond to this action by the executive branch. Ted Cruz’s statement tonight was not exactly a full-throated endorsement , and I suspect libertarians like Rand Paul and critics of the existing legal justifications for the fight against the Islamic State such as Tim Kaine will also criticize the administration. But my final observation concerns my friend Kori Schake, who predicted the administration would strike when I didn’t think it would. The next time Jim Mattis’s intellectual partner tells me something will happen … I’ll listen.