Of all the reactions to President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike on Thursday, the least convincing was the impulse by supporters such as Sen. Marco Rubio and John Bolton to label this a “decisive” act. Hardly. In fact, Trump’s strike was reminiscent of the kind of low-risk cruise missile attacks that Bill Clinton favored against Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and that Republicans mocked for their symbolic, ineffectual nature. After 9/11, you’ll recall, President George W. Bush vowed, in a swipe at his predecessor, “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
Looks like we’re back to killing camels. Far from decisive, Trump’s decision to fire 59 cruise missiles against a single air base in Syria was considerably smaller than the action that President Barack Obama was considering to enforce his “red line” in 2013 before he lost his nerve. Obama was on the verge of approving an air campaign to destroy Bashar al-Assad’s air defenses and air force — what Secretary of State John Kerry described at the time as an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” Trump, by contrast, merely took one air base out of operation for less than a day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that within 24 hours, Syrian jets were once again taking off from Shayrat air base. Not only that: On Saturday, aircraft again were bombing Khan Sheikhoun, the very town that earlier in the week had been the site of a sarin gas attack. What’s smaller than “unbelievably small”?
The impact of Trump’s attack was further vitiated because the administration decided to warn Russia, which had troops at the base. The Russians, in turn, seem to have passed along the word to their Syrian friends, which helps to explain why almost no Syrian military personnel died in the strike. The early warning to the Russians may have been prudent, but it was also ironic in light of Trump’s nonstop criticisms of President Obama for supposedly sacrificing the “element of surprise” in his war-fighting — candidate Trump claimed that Douglas MacArthur and George Patton must be “spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country.” President Trump seems, mercifully, to have learned there are considerations that sometimes override the element of surprise, like the need to prevent a war with Russia.
This is hardly the only reversal evident in this cruise missile strike — in fact, the psychological impact of this attack was greatly heightened because it was so unexpected. It was ordered, after all, by the same man who tweeted back in 2013: “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” And the same man who, as recently as last October, warned that Hillary Clinton’s plans for greater involvement in Syria would “lead to World War III.” And the same man who has shown so little interest in the suffering of the Syrian people that he has attempted to issue an executive order ending all refugee admissions from that country. And the same man who ran on a quasi-isolationist, “America First” platform that disdained the use of military force for anything but the defense of American interests, narrowly defined.
How, then, can Trump now justify military action in retaliation for an attack on Syrians rather than Americans? The only explanation offered by the administration is that Trump saw the horrific pictures of gassed victims, including children, on April 4 and was motivated to do something. It is a good thing he did act, but it is hard to know what larger lessons about U.S. policy in the world or in Syria itself one can draw from this decision. The Trump doctrine appears to be: The United States reserves the right to use force whenever the president is upset by something he sees on TV.
The best things you can say for the strike were that it helped strengthen the international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction and that it put America’s enemies on notice that this commander in chief, unlike his predecessor, will not hesitate to use military force. Those are valuable messages to send, but if Trump is interested in truly “decisive” action in Syria, he will need to go a whole lot further. What is required is a comprehensive diplomatic-military plan to end a six-year civil war that has inflicted so much human suffering and empowered so many extremist groups.
That objective is much harder to achieve now than it was prior to the Russian intervention in 2015. Before then, U.S. and allied airstrikes could have easily crippled Assad’s air force and thus put his regime in serious jeopardy. Now Assad has a virtually invulnerable air force, courtesy of Vladimir Putin. There are still steps the United States could take, but none of them are as simple or risk-free as launching cruise missiles.
The essential need is to change the battlefield calculus to make possible a negotiated solution, which would probably result in ethnic cantons à la Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton peace accords. In order to achieve this outcome, the United States would have to train and support a true Free Syrian Army, a capable combined-arms military force rather than the ragtag rebel groups of today. It would have to be strong enough to win battles not only against the regime but also against powerful Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria). This, too, is much harder to accomplish now than in years past, because the lack of American support for moderate rebels has empowered the extremists.
To be effective, the Free Syrian Army would require American advisors and air support of the kind we are now providing to the primarily Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria. This would, of course, risk drawing the United States into a broader confrontation with the Assad regime and its outside enablers — Russia and Iran — while raising the prospect of U.S. casualties. Such a long-term, ambitious campaign would also require the approval of Congress and the support of U.S. allies, neither of which Trump bothered to seek before unleashing his cruise missiles.
There is absolutely no sign that President Trump has any appetite for such an agenda. Indeed, military officials are telling the New York Times that the cruise missile strike “was never intended to be the leading edge of a broader campaign to dislodge Mr. Assad from power, or force a political settlement in a country that has been ripped apart by six years of a bloody civil war.” Oh, so what was the point?
The only point, it seems, was to discourage Assad from killing people with chemical weapons. Killing people with barrel bombs, by contrast, appears to be just fine with the Trump administration. “The American strikes did nothing for us. They can still commit massacres at anytime,” a resident of Khan Sheikhoun told the Washington Post. “No one here can sleep properly, people are really afraid.”
If there is a coherent administration strategy, it is impossible to discern. Maybe the president is just hiding it so as to preserve the “element of surprise” when he finally springs it on us — to the posthumous approbation of MacArthur and Patton?