Trump: On the Road to Damascus?

Less than 100 days into office, President Trump may have made one of the most important decisions of his entire presidency.  But in the coming weeks and months, Mr Trump will have to decide one of two courses for American history.

On 4 April, the Syrian military reportedly used sarin gas against civilians.  In response, on 7 April (Syria time), U.S. ships launched cruise missile attacks against a Syrian military air base.  The President and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained that it was in the vital national interest of the United States that the use of chemical weapons not be considered acceptable.  They called on their allies and “all civilized nations” to share that commitment. And they reiterated that Russia must be accountable for its support of Assad.

In a broader sense, though, Syria’s use of chemical weapons forced Mr Trump to decide how the U.S. will approach regional and global crises and a long-term strategy.  He can choose to resume the United States military involvement in the Middle East that began with the Carter Doctrine almost 40 years ago, and includes the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and support of the fight against ISIS. 

Or Mr Trump can choose a different route. President Obama drew a “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but hesitated to respond when Syrian President Assad used them in 2013.  Mr Obama deferred to the Senate, where both parties were divided over authorizing action and risking deeper involvement in yet another war in the Middle East.

Mr Obama, elected on the promise to withdraw the United States from the two wars in the Middle East, and reluctant to begin a new commitment without strong bipartisan support from the Congress, yielded American leadership on this issue, and any chance to control the narrative in Syria itself.  Russian President Putin quickly cobbled together an agreement which was supposed to remove all chemical weapons from Syria.

Mr Trump had been reluctant to get more involved with Syria.  But he said his opinion of Assad was now changed, that this attack “crossed many red lines.”  Vice President Pence said “all options” are now on the table.  US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called not only for the international community to respond, but also called out Russia for its ongoing support of Assad.

President Trump seemed to have to choose to make one of two mistakes, both with terrible and long-lasting consequences. First, the United States could fully commit to removing Assad from power. Iraq and Afghanistan offer sobering lessons, and similar deployments could be very unpopular.  Removing Assad would have been very difficult six years ago, it may be even more so difficult now. Assad has the support of Russia, and Syria hosts a wide range of competing hostile forces.  Even if Russia changed course and Assad were removed from power, the risk would remain that a new, possibly worse situation would follow, as it did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. 

Or, second, President Trump could make a different mistake. With inaction, he would send the message that the United States will in fact tolerate the use of chemical weapons against civilians. It would advance a pattern of ceding leadership and responsibility around the world.  U.S. hesitance here would give more room to Russia, Turkey, and Iran, countries without democratic ideals and with interests often inimical to those of the United States and its allies.  Inaction would also indicate acceptance of changed international norms, and warn that other changes might lie ahead.  Might there be a level of nuclear strike by North Korea that is small enough not to require a response by the international community?  Could accepting the use of chemical weapons against civilians imply the same standards apply in cyberwarfare?

A diplomatic solution would be ideal, but again the calculus is overwhelming.  Assad is removed and tried for war crimes.  Syria is secured and reconstructed as a cohesive, peaceful, diverse, stable (even democratic?) society.  Russia, Turkey, and Iran (and Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel?) resolve dozens of security, political, economic, ethnic, sectarian, and environmental issues. Good luck.

Mr Trump’s “proportional response” of cruise missiles may settle the issue in the short run.  But in Syria, in other crises, and in developing his own long-term national security strategy, it will be difficult for Mr Trump to find a third way in between the Scylla of more American war in the Middle East and the Charybdis of American withdrawal from global leadership.