Thank goodness Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad weren’t paying much attention to Donald Trump in September 2013.
At that time, many of my Obama administration colleagues and I were spending most of our days on Capitol Hill, struggling to persuade a jittery and skeptical Congress to authorize U.S. airstrikes against Assad’s forces in Syria in response to a horrific chemical weapons attack that left nearly 1,500 civilians dead. It was an uphill fight. Both Republicans and Democrats were asking tough questions about how the planned strikes would work and what they would lead to, worried that the U.S. would get dragged into the Syrian morass.
President Barack Obama’s determination to threaten force ignited a frenzied national debate, one that Trump was more than happy to jump into. Trump reflected and fueled a national mood wary of Middle East conflicts, tweeting, “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA” and warning that “Obama’s war in Syria” would escalate into a “worldwide conflict” with Russia. This echoed what we were hearing from many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who were far more comfortable talking tough than sharing accountability for U.S. military actions.
Despite the doubts Trump and others expressed at the time — asserting that an attack had no upside and a tremendous downside — Putin and Assad clearly believed American bombs were coming, and to prevent that from happening they ended up agreeing to something that was unexpected and no one thought possible: a diplomatic deal to remove nearly 1,300 metric tons of Syria’s chemical weapons, then the world’s third-largest stockpile. Without a bomb being dropped, Syria had admitted to having massive chemical weapons program it had never before acknowledged, agreed to give it up, and submitted to an international coalition that removed the weapons and destroyed them at sea. This was an example of the threat of force achieving something the use of military power could not itself accomplish.
Of course, despite the peaceful removal of such weapons, Obama’s decision to take the diplomatic option rather than barrel forward with strikes that Trump and others were warning against is now seen as an original sin — evidence of Obama’s core weakness that, Trump now asserts, led to the Syrian tragedy we are dealing with today. It is true that this did not end the Syrian civil war (something the “red line” was never intended to achieve), and the Assad regime manufactured homemade weapons with industrial chemicals like chlorine and, we now know after this week’s attack, did not give up its entire stockpile. Does this diminish the accomplishment? Absolutely, although I am sure Trump is happy he is not dealing with a Syria that still has 1,300 tons of chemical weapons.
So the question is what to do. Trump appears ready for an about-face as dramatic as Obama’s surprise decision to seek Congressional approval in 2013 — just a few days ago the White House said it would submit to the “political reality” that Assad would remain in power, but now it seems poised to strike back. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “[Assad is] there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”
An American military response is clearly justified — after all, the United States has been bombing Syria every day for two-and-a-half years, conducting nearly 7,500 strikes against Islamic State targets. The challenge, however, is that Assad now enjoys Russia’s protective cover, and that any U.S. attack risks killing Russians on the ground (something that was acutely on our minds when we were planning targets four years ago, but is much worse today). There is an even greater risk of the kind of conflict Trump warned against four years ago.
Yet there are options — which the U.S. military is certainly drawing up. The U.S. could use stand-off weapons to strike those forces responsible for the attack, or could hit things Assad values, like his helicopter fleet or a favorite residence. This must be accompanied by a stern message to Moscow to control escalation, although it is uncertain how much credibility Trump has to deliver this.
Trump’s instinct is always to punch back — and now that Syria’s actions have crossed not just a red line, but “a lot” of them, he has created an expectation that he will do so. But the question is what this will lead to, and how he thinks his actions will serve the country’s larger strategic goals. A response is necessary, but Trump needs to answer the question he posed in 2013: “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?” President Trump, welcome to the NFL.
Photo credit: Donald Trump and King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House on Wednesday. ALEX WONG/Getty Images