With all of Washington consumed by the effort to craft and pass health-care legislation, the Trump White House appeared to catch the country’s political establishment off guard when it announced that the crisis in Syria was again reaching a crescendo.
In a prepared statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that the Bashar al-Assad regime was engaged in “potential preparations” to execute “another chemical attack” on civilians. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” the statement read.
Hours later, the Pentagon expounded upon the nature of the threat. “We have seen activity at Shayrat Airfield,” said Captain Jeff Davis, “associated with chemical weapons.” The Shayrat Air Base outside the city of Homs is the same airfield that was targeted in April with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
For all the frustration over the Trump administration’s failure to craft a coherent strategy to guide American engagement in the Syrian theater, the White House has communicated to the Assad regime a set of clear parameters in which it is expected to operate. That is a marked improvement over the approach taken by Barack Obama’s administration.
When American forces in Syria or those under the American defense umbrella are threatened by the Assad regime or its proxies, American forces will take action. On several occasions, U.S. forces have made kinetic defensive strikes on pro-government militias, and that policy recently expanded to include Syrian regular forces. On June 18, a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber was destroyed when it struck American-backed fighters laying siege to the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.
The Trump administration has also telegraphed to Damascus the limited conditions that would lead to offensive operations against regime targets. At the risk of contradicting his campaign-trail promise to scale back American commitments abroad, President Trump was convinced at the urging of his closest advisors and family members following the April 4 chemical attacks to execute strikes on the Assad regime. His administration was quick to communicate that this was a one-time punitive measure, not a campaign. There would be no follow-on action.
That directive may no longer be operative. With the release of this latest statement warning Damascus against renewed chemical strikes on rebel targets, the triggers that led to strikes on regime targets in April are hardening into a doctrine. The United States will act aggressively to maintain a global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. There is enough consistency and clarity to Trump’s approach that it might amount to deterrence. Even if the Assad regime is not deterred, onlookers may yet be.
This is a doctrine that Barack Obama flirted with, but declined only at the last minute to adopt. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them,” Obama explained to the nation in a primetime address on September 10, 2013. “Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”
This was and remains a prophetic warning. ISIS militants have already deployed chemical munitions against Iraqi troops and their American and Australian advisors. An inauspicious future typified by despots unafraid to unleash indiscriminate and unconventional weapons on the battlefield would surely have come to fruition had the West not eventually made good on Obama’s threats.
Obama framed his about-face as an odd species of consistency. He deferred to Congress in a way he hadn’t before and wouldn’t after while simultaneously empowering Moscow to mediate the conflict. This laid the groundwork for Russian armed intervention in Syria just two years later. In contrast, Donald Trump eschewed the rote dance of coalition-building and public diplomacy. Instead, he ordered the unilateral, punitive strike on a rogue for behaving roguishly. And he’s willing to do it again if need be.
That approach will prove refreshing to America’s Sunni allies who, by the end of the last administration, were entirely disillusioned with the Obama presidency. Obama’s waltz back from his red line undermined the Gulf States and shattered hopes in Syria that the West was prepared to enforce the proscription on mass civilian slaughter. In the week of war drums leading up to the anti-climax of September 10, 2013, a wave of defections from the Syrian Army suggested that a post-Assad future was possible. Today, few think such a prospect is conceivable. And because the insurgency against Assad’s regime will not end with Assad in power, an equal number cannot foresee a stop to the Syrian civil war anytime soon.
These circumstances have led some to criticize the Trump administration. Perhaps the behaviors they’ve resolved to punish are too narrowly defined. Maybe the White House should rethink regime change? It is, after all, not so much a civil war anymore but a great power conflict. American troops—to say nothing of Russian, Turkish, British, French, and a host of others—are already on the ground in Syria in numbers and at cross purposes. Still others contend that even this level of engagement in the Levant is irresponsible. They argue the Syrian quagmire is to be avoided at all costs.
These are all legitimate criticisms, but only now can there be a rational debate over a concrete Syria policy.
For more than three years, Barack Obama tried to have his cake and eat it, too. He presented himself as sagaciously unmoved by the political pressuring of Washington’s pro-war establishment, which salivates over the prospect of lucrative strikes on an alien nation. At the same time, the Obama White House cast itself as a reluctant defender of civilization in the Middle East and elsewhere—perhaps even too quick to deploy men and ordnance. This was only nonsense retrofitted onto Barack Obama’s pursuit of a face-saving way to retreat from his self-set “red line.”
The Trump administration’s policy in Syria is an improvement over Obama’s if only because it deserves to be called a policy. Love it or don’t, at least Americans are no longer being gaslighted into debating the merits of phantasms invented by political strategists in Washington talk shops.