America at the Precipice of a Quagmire
On the morning of April 4th, the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad unleashed a torrent of bombs on the civilian population of Khan Sheikhoun. However, these were not ordinary explosives, but rather, chemical weapons in the form of the extremely lethal nerve agent sarin. Once again the world bore witness to the unmitigated brutality the Syrian dictator routinely unleashes upon his people.
After viewing the grotesque imagery of dead and dying children, President Trump echoed the sentiments long held by numerous observers, stating, “What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes, and it shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.” Just over two days later, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, striking the Al Shayrat airfield.
When news of the punitive attack broke, Syrian and Russian officials were quick to condemn the strike as an unwarranted act of aggression. Russia and Iran offered a joint statement commenting, “Rest assured that we will liberate Syria from all kinds of occupying forces, it does not matter from where they came to the occupied part of Syria. Russia and Iran will not allow the United States to be the only superpower in world.”
Meanwhile, America’s allies heralded the move as a welcomed step toward quelling ongoing human rights abuses. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affirmed his unwavering support, stating, “In words and actions, President Trump sent a strong and clear response: The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Israel fully and unequivocally supports the president’s decision and hopes the clear message will reverberate not only in Damascus but also in Tehran, Pyongyang and other places.”
In response to their critics, the White House defended its strike as both measured and decisive, a veritable shot fired across Assad’s bow. A Pentagon spokesman reiterated that “The intent was to deter the regime from doing this again. It will be the regime’s choice if there’s any more, and it will be based upon their conduct going forward.”
However, launching cruise missiles against Assad’s military installations represents a radical departure from nearly a decade of American policy toward Syria. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a dramatic about-face turn for President Trump, who had long reiterated his desire to keep the United States out of the conflict. In fact, just after Assad launched the chemical attack, White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, commented on the administration’s intent to allow Assad to remain in power, stating, “We would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria.”
Yet in the span of less than a week, the Trump Administration has sharply changed course. The nation’s top diplomat, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, shifted from believing that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” to holding that it “would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” Shortly thereafter, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated that the United States was “prepared to do more” and strongly alluded to the inevitability of regime change, a clear indication that additional military action—possibly in support of Assad’s ouster—may be forthcoming.
To be sure, the Trump Administration’s policy reversal casts suspicion upon the wisdom of ordering a missile strike as an effective opening stanza for a determined American intervention. We’ve long known that the Russian-supported Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its civilian population. In the final month preceding Aleppo’s fall to government forces, Human Rights Watch reported that chemical weapons were deployed at least eight different times. Yet, in a week in which North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, and President Xi Jinping of China’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, the White House opted to send a very strong message to the world, ostensibly realizing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s aforementioned hope.
To that end, the Trump Administration bypassed levying additional economic sanctions on Syria, which may have done well to cripple Assad’s ability to utilize its materiel advantage on the battlefield. It also passed on implementing a no-fly zone or forcibly grounding the Syrian Air Force, Assad’s primary vehicle for doling out brutality. In effect, the Trump Administration may very well have “passed go” by proceeding with direct military action, as white hot regional tensions are now likely to impede the imposition of these initiatives. Perhaps most importantly of all, the military strike coupled with the issuance of a disjointed public narrative from the administration—which has effectively called for Assad’s removal—presents several inescapable realities for the United States.
For the last decade, Russian foreign policy has been directed toward the reestablishment of “Great Power” status, an aim that can only come at the expense of the established Western order. Moreover, since at least 2014, Russia has placed the bulk of its military rearmament efforts into rebuilding the Black Sea Fleet, the enforcement arm necessary to affect its geopolitical ambitions. The physical gateway to this policy realization is the Middle East. To that end, Russia’s closest ally in the region is Syria, on whose seaports and airbases Russia’s military relies. As such, the Kremlin is not going to freely part with Assad, and certainly not without attempting to make the United States pay a price for inflicting such a strategic loss.
Almost immediately following the strike, Russia suspended its use of the “deconfliction” hotline, a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington intended to minimize the possibility of mid-air incidents between the two nations’ militaries. It followed-up by bolstering the size of its naval battle group operating off the Syrian coast. Amid rising military tensions, particularly when coupled with the density of Russia’s in-theater military assets—including potent air defense systems, the United States is going to find it increasingly difficult to operate on the ground and in the skies over Syria. Such developments not only enhance risk for civilians and military personnel alike, but will inhibit the United States’ ability to provide humanitarian aid, conduct ground-based special operations missions, and launch aircraft-based strikes on ISIS targets.
Aside from the fate of Russia’s Middle East-specific foreign policy, which requires that Assad remain in power, the Kremlin simply cannot be seen to have been humiliated on the global stage by its archrival. As a “strong man” state, it must not only prevent the occurrence of a future embarrassment at the hands of the United States, but must noticeably demonstrate its strength. One can almost expect that in addition to increased defensive posturing in Syria, Russia will double its efforts to threaten or otherwise undermine American interests abroad. This could take the form of continued covert efforts in furtherance of splintering the European Union, ratcheting-up the pressure on a NATO it perceives as fractured, continuing its absorption of the Ukraine, or amplifying its support for states and entities hostile to the United States.
On the issue of Assad, now that military force has been initiated, and coupled with official US statements calling for his removal, the situation in Syria is destined to get even more chaotic and bloody. An out-of-power Assad, if not killed by his domestic enemies during the process, is likely to be tried and hanged for war crimes. When facing the strong prospect of execution, either at the hands of an international tribunal or his own people, it’s not unlikely that his forces will demonstrate an increased penchant for barbarism in a last-ditch effort to bring the rebellion to a rapid close. Even now, Syrian warplanes are resuming their intensive air campaign from the very airfield the United States attacked.
Now that we’ve firmly placed a stake in the bloodied soil of Syria, providing its long-suffering citizens with hope and signaling to the world that the United States has assumed primary custody of the conflict, we must now be fully-prepared to deliver peace. We must remain cognizant of history’s lessons and the existing parallels between the situation in Syria and past American experiences in the region. We must remember that Iraq, like Syria, was once ruled by a Ba’athist dictator who oppressed and brutalized the nation’s religious majority for decades, sowing the seeds of future radicalization destined to fill any power vacuum. While half the size—both in terms of population and area—of Iraq, the pacification and institution of a stable successor government in Syria may well require northward of half the personnel commitment seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and run along a timeframe comparable to Operation Enduring Freedom.
To be sure, the morality or justness of the strike—or successive action—is not in question, nor is the righteousness of eradicating a regime that victimizes the innocent. The targeting of civilian populations with chemical or conventional weapons—in open defiance of international law—cannot, and should not, be tolerated. In fact, many eagerly await the day when Assad is brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague to answer for his crimes against humanity.
Yet regardless of its underlying motivation, the decision to strike the Al Shayrat airfield has firmly placed the United States on a trajectory of diplomatic and military escalation. We have taken an affirmative unilateral stand, a position from which we cannot retreat. The die has officially been cast, and the United States must now be prepared to see the conflict in Syria to its natural conclusion, otherwise we won’t simply view increased civilian suffering and resultant local radicalization dangerous to American national security, but widespread assaults on American national interests from foes spanning the globe.
The United States must now be prepared to grapple with the eventualities generated by both its words and actions. Washington will no longer be able to cast a friendly eye upon Moscow, averting its gaze from the inevitable intersection of two diametrically opposed powers. It must reinforce its bond with critically important international allies. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Trump Administration must proceed in a calculated fashion, formulate and adhere to a cogent overarching foreign policy strategy, the absence of which transforms the chess-like practice of diplomacy into a headlong stumble toward the bloody abyss of war.