by Stephen Saideman
The missile strike against the airfield in Syria raises far more questions than it answers (for an excellent initial take, see here). As I think about it, I have to be honest that my confirmation bias might be at work: that anything Trump does is wrong in my mind. Would I have approved of Hillary Clinton doing the same thing? Not so sure as I have become quite skeptical about the use of force, so let’s run through the situation itself before we get to the Trumpness of it all.
Hitting an airfield that was the source of the chemical weapons used against Syrians seems kind of proportionate. However, it does not change Syria’s ability to use these weapons since the actual weapons themselves were not targeted–that hitting them might expose more Syrians to them. Nor did the personnel responsible for the chemical weapons attack get harmed. Nor is the airfield out of commission for very long. So, the material impact is probably modest. The symbolic impact?
Unless this is part of a larger campaign against Assad, and thus far we have conflicting signals (Tillerson says no, Trump hints yes), then it is purely symbolic. Will Assad be dissuaded from further chemical weapons attacks? Maybe. It depends in part on why he used them this week. Perhaps he thought he had a green light from the statements last week by Tillerson and Trump. If so, then now he knows what is beyond the pale (awful that it takes a missile strike rather than the usual restraints on the use of chemical weapons), so mission accomplished.
But remember, Assad has been killing civilians, including kids, and targeting hospitals for years. Unless something builds upon the strike, Assad can go ahead and keep on killing. His government has killed far more Syrians than ISIS, and has generated far more refugees. So, unless he goes, the current crisis both in Syria and in Europe continues.
What next? That is where the uncertainty engine that is Trump operates. We don’t know what is next. My guess is that this is it for now, but who knows. And it is precisely that uncertainty that is problematic. Canadian media are asking what is Trudeau going to do, but how can we expect Canada or any other American partner to announce their next steps when we have no idea what Trump will do.
To be clear, the US is already at war in Syria–with Marine artillery and Rangers and Special Operations Forces on the ground and bombing ISIS from above. But this step is now putting the US in a war-ish situation with Syria. Whether it is war or not depends on the next steps. And, yes, if the US goes to war against Syria, then those assets on the ground face far greater risks, the planes in the skies would now face Syrian anti-air defenses, and everything gets more complicated with Russians in harm’s way.
Which is why the Obama Administration was reluctant to use force against Syria–the “then what” question matters a great deal. The urge to do something is understandable, and perhaps this strike will stop Assad from using chemical weapons for a while. But Syria will remain a killing field. Let’s be clear about that.
So, bombing Assad’s forces, kind of, feels good, but unless it is part of a broader strategy, it will not mean that much. But as everyone grapples with the uncertainty, lots of awkward questions and vague answers are to be expected.