Trump changes the rules of the game: The impact of the strike in Syria

For the Trump administration, the strike in Syria – limited and demonstrative in nature, but strategically resounding and timely – served all purposes at once.

PEOPLE ATTEND a protest against American airstrikes in Syria, in front of a United Nations building in Damascus. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE ATTEND a protest against American airstrikes in Syria, in front of a United Nations building in Damascus.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As both practitioners and theoreticians know all too well, making decisions in national security and foreign policy is often a matter of choosing the least miserable course of action amid painful dilemmas: moral considerations clash with strategic expediency; military imperatives contradict diplomatic needs; domestic politics stand in the way of international relations; and all options come with bitter costs. The dramatic decision by the Trump administration to use force – albeit in a limited and essentially demonstrative manner – in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, including children, in Khan Sheikhoun near Idlib in northern Syria, was one of the rare exceptions to this rule.
At the moral level, the president’s anguish and sense of outrage were apparently quite real and personal. The strike also reflected a broader sense of betrayal. The Syrian regime’s chemical attack came almost immediately after the Trump administration declared itself to be willing, according to US UN Representative Haley’s statements, to take Syrian President Bashar Assad off the hook and endorse a new position (now reversed again, and sharply) which did not require his removal from power. The notion that this was misread by someone in Damascus as a green light for the horror made the need to react all the more pressing.
At the political level, there was quite obviously a wish, and an opportunity, to set the present administration apart from its predecessor. To show Trump as a resolute and credible leader, as compared with president Barack Obama’s highly problematic decision to shelve his “red line” and opt for a diplomatic solution. The comparison is hardly fair: Obama managed to generate (with some Russian help, behind the scenes) an outcome which provided a far greater benefit – the abolition of much (obviously not all) of Syria’s formidable chemical arsenal – than anything any strike could have achieved at the time. No such option was available to Trump: Syrian perfidy has made diplomacy irrelevant. But such nuances are lost on most if not all spectators in this drama: what they see are two very different reactions, one cerebral and weak, the other visceral and strong, to what seems to be a similar set of events.
In legal terms, despite loud Syrian, Iranian and Russian protestations about the breach of Syrian sovereignty, this was an action taken only after the option of agreed international action was derailed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China. Given the stakes, the US was in a position to claim the “Duty to Protect” – and more significantly, the right to respond to a blatant breach of UNSCR 2118 and of Syrian obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Significantly, the most salient impact of the decision – as could have been anticipated – was in terms of the perception in key regional capitals: anger in Damascus, support in Jerusalem, dismay in Tehran, ambiguity in Cairo, but above all, unmasked delight in Riyadh. It should come as no surprise that an administration in which the former CEO of Exxon and the former US CENTCOM commander (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, respectively) is highly attentive to Saudi needs and perspectives. This also means that the rifts in the “camp of stability” can now be healed, under American leadership. Just recently, a court in Egypt reversed a previous decision and made possible the return of the Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty, thus removing a major source of potential friction between the two pillars of the camp. All this, in turn, is of strategic value from an Israeli point of view given the common interest of Israel, Saudi Arabia and others in the region (Jordan was among those who offered praise for Trump’s action) to curb the rising influence of Iran and of Tehran’s proxies and allies.
A potential benefit, yet to be established over time, is in the realm of US relations with key players in the international arena.
Common moral outrage – and the specific European interest in preventing the regime in Syria from devastating the country even further, and pushing ever-growing numbers of helpless refugees out – served to bring about a rare moment of European solidarity with an American administration not otherwise universally admired (to put it mildly). This gain is offset, to some extent, by the serious reverse in US-Russian relations, now tinged by mutual accusations of callousness and aggression. But Moscow, at the end of the day, is profoundly interested in exploring the meaning of Trump’s willingness to turn a page, and will not allow one mindless act by the Syrian regime to derail this prospect.
Meanwhile, the strike in Syria also served to emphasize and underline some of Trump’s key messages in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida – an exploratory first step in what is probably the most important foreign policy aspect of his presidency, for strategic as well as domestic political reasons. The import of the willingness to use force is triple-headed: it reasserts American power generally; it points specifically to the questions of non-proliferation, which are also at the core of the US response to the North Korean challenge; and it reminds the Chinese of the pivotal role the US (and specifically its military presence) in areas which are vital both to their energy supply and their plans for landand- sea links (“One Belt, One Road”) with markets in West Asia, Africa and Europe.
It now falls to Trump’s team, who did well in this first serious test of their resolve (but had the benefit of having all the arguments for action well aligned) to sustain the momentum in asserting their role in the region; further reducing Iran’s room for maneuver, and prevailing upon Russian President Vladimir Putin to rethink the cost and benefits of his unquestioning support for Iran’s murderous ally in Damascus; and standing by other friends in their hour of need, including Egypt in the wake of the latest terrorist outrage at the church of St.George in Tanta.
The author is a lecturer at the Middle East & Islamic Studies Program at the Shalem Academic College, and formerly the deputy to the head of the National Security Council in Israel.