Critical Questions Remain Over Trump’s Missile Strikes and Syria Policy

Overall, Syrian democracy activists were ecstatic about President Donald Trump’s strikes on the base from which the Syrian regime launched its latest chemical attacks. After years of impunity, the Assad regime paid a price (however tiny) for their crimes against humanity. Western proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, the enforcement of international law and norms, and more direct action to end the war, along with other critics of the Obama administration’s largely hands-off policy, have on average been more ambivalent. And rightfully so.

Many questions remain: Why did Trump strike—for his personal popularity, to be the anti-Obama, because he just now realized what Assad has been doing? If he cares about Syrian civilians, why does he show no compassion for the refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS?  What are his strategic goals (if they exist)—enforcing the norm against chemical weapon use, protecting innocent civilians, shifting the dynamics on the ground to increase the odds of a resolution to the conflict? Is this part of a larger strategy or an emotional response to the barbarism seen in images and videos of the attack (the CNN Effect, as political scientists call it)? Does Trump have the ability to effectively carry out any larger strategy given his general incompetence and unwillingness to study policy details? How will his relationship with Russia affect his response to their apparent complicity in these crimes? Does Trump now realize the role Assad has played and continues to play in strengthening extremists or not?

While many oppose a status quo that has left half a million people dead, displaced roughly half the country, and created a refugee crisis that threatens Western democracy, these questions and others make many who are open to intervention hesitate before endorsing the administration’s course of action or becoming optimistic about future Trump administration policies. The costs of further intervention (whatever form it could take) are real, as are the risks (as with non-intervention), particularly in the wake of the Russian intervention to save the regime from collapsing—a responsible analyst must not only consider what the best course of action should be, but the likelihood that an administration is inclined to, and capable of, carrying it out.

While a movement away from ‘America First’ populist nationalism is certainly encouraging, those who value the common good are right to remain skeptical of an administration that has yet to prove its intentions or efficacy. The lessons of Iraq should not lead to isolationism, but precisely this type of skepticism with a careful consideration of who is intervening and why. The President’s competence (or incompetence) can have a dramatic impact on the probability of success and potential costs of intervention. This must be considered in calculations of the justness and strategic prudence of particular courses of action. Can the wrong man carry out the right policy? Certainly, but with so many unanswered questions, caution is the most sensible response right now.

Here are a few articles on the chemical weapon attacks and reactions from those who have been critical of Western indifference to Assad’s mass murder:

‘My entire family’s gone’: Syrian man says 25 relatives died in strike by CNN: “Youssef arrived in his parents’ house to find his two brothers dead. Panicked, he rushed back to his home to check on his wife and babies. “There was foam on their mouths, there were convulsions. They had all been on the floor,” Youssef told CNN on Wednesday, sobbing. “My kids, Ahmad and Aya, and my wife… they were all martyred. “My entire family’s gone.””

Teen lost 19 family members in Syria chemical attack: ‘I saw the explosion’ by CNN: “In all, he said, 19 of his relatives were killed Tuesday morning. When Mazin said that devastating number, his voice cracked. He lost his struggle to maintain self-control. His face contorted, his red eyes filled with tears. He plopped down sobbing on the plastic chair in the hospital corridor. Mazin is only 13 years old. He is a child. And this is his world.”

Trump might be going to war. But he has no plans for establishing peace. by Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras: “Yet as analysts who have argued for greater U.S. military engagement to end the Syrian civil war, we find ourselves conflicted about the president’s decision: We fear there is simply no plan for what comes next. To succeed beyond Thursday’s limited strikes, American leaders must decide on a clear set of objectives, a realistic desired final outcome, a theory of the case for how to get there and a solid understanding of the risks. We see three potential options for how the president could move forward.”

What Effect Will Trump’s Airstrikes Really Have? By Daniel Byman: “If the strike does achieve the President’s objective and Asad no longer uses chemical weapons against his own people, that’s good news—but it is little consolation for the tens of thousands of Syrians who are likely to die in the coming months from regime barrel bombs or indiscriminate Russian airstrikes or to be tortured and killed in the dictator’s prisons.”

Syrian opposition leader: Trump has a chance to save Syria By Josh Rogin: “Short of that, the Syrian opposition is asking the Trump administration to use any new leverage it has to demand a nationwide ceasefire, to stop the killing of civilians by the Assad regime and press for international access to all besieged areas and the jails where Assad is holding thousands of civilians in custody. They also believe now is the time to push for a new political process to move Assad out of power.”

A Practical Guide for Avoiding Fallacies on Syria by Shadi Hamid: “It is abundantly clear that the Assad regime will not negotiate in good faith or make any significant concessions on its own. We’ve hoped for that since the earliest Arab League efforts in 2011. The credible threat of force (or its use) is the only thing that is likely to change Assad’s calculus. If his survival isn’t at stake, he has little reason to negotiate much of anything.”

This May Signal That the Free Ride for Mass Murder Is Over by Frederic Hof: “Bashar al-Assad’s political survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other forms of violent, terrorist extremism.”

So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now? by Charles Lister: “Assad cannot and will never put Syria back together again, but partition is not an answer. Foreign intervention for rapid regime change promises only further chaos, but determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible and now proven threat of force presents the best opportunity in years to strong-arm actors on the ground into a phase of meaningful de-escalation, out of which eventually, a durable negotiation process may result.”