The United States attacked Syria last week, launching dozens of cruise missiles against Syrian targets in retaliation for chemical gas attacks against civilians. While many, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, applauded the show of resolve in defense of international law and norms, the resort to force raises fundamental questions about foreign policy in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It is not clear how decisions are made in the U.S. government, nor is there clarity about Washington’s strategy regarding use of its formidable military. Without answers to those questions, and especially the latter one, the use of force is likely to cause more problems than it solves.
In the early hours of Friday, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles struck the Shayrat air base in central Syria. The missiles, fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted the base from which the Damascus government allegedly launched sarin gas attacks against civilians earlier in the week, attacks that killed scores of people, dozens of them children. The strikes were “a proportional response” to “a heinous act,” said a Pentagon spokesman, and surgical: nearby facilities reportedly house more chemical weapons and hitting them would create a chemical catastrophe.
The attacks are a turnabout by Trump. Five years ago, Trump warned then U.S. President Barack Obama against getting involved in the Syrian conflict, even after the Syrian government was charged with using chemical weapons against civilians. Trump argued throughout the campaign that the U.S. should not be involved in the Syrian conflict; he insisted that the top U.S. priority should be the fight against Islamic State radicals, a battle in which beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad was an ally.
Days before the attacks, senior U.S. government officials were saying that Trump was prepared to let Assad stay in office, calling it “a political reality that we have to accept.” That statement was followed by the gas attacks, which Trump then described as “one of the truly egregious crimes,” and a “disgrace to humanity” that crossed “a lot of lines.” When asked what that means about Assad, Trump replied that “I guess he’s running things, so something should happen,” a statement that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson translated as “It would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” Before the missile strike, Tillerson added that “steps are underway” for the U.S. to lead an international effort to remove Assad. It is not clear whether he was referring to the attacks or something more.
The air strikes represent a reversal in policy in another critical way. They have undermined cooperation with Russia, a key backer of Assad, and a government that the Trump administration had identified as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State group. Russia has staunchly defended its Syrian client, insisting that the chemical attack was the result of a Syrian government assault on a rebel warehouse that held chemical weapons.
A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Putin considers the U.S. air strikes “an aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that.” Tillerson countered that Russia was “complicit or simply incompetent” in efforts to ensure that Syria honored its 2013 pledge to get rid of its arsenal of chemical weapons. Russia responded by suspending an airspace safety memorandum with the U.S. that allowed the two militaries to avoid conflict while attacking targets in Syria. Given the deep embedding of Russian forces with those of Syria, the odds of a U.S. attack generating Russian casualty have now increased. (And if the U.S. notified the Russian military of the strikes ahead of time as the agreement required, that would explain reports that there was minimal damage to Syrian forces.)
This mingling of forces is a reminder of the dangers risked by a more aggressive policy against the Syrian government. Equally troubling are the gyrations and reversals of U.S. policy. Chemical weapons should never be used and atrocities against civilian populations should be punished. But the U.S. has been signaling that the Middle East is not a U.S. fight and the Trump administration would not intervene in the Syrian civil war. That may likely have been interpreted by the Damascus government as a green light. Washington has to indicate to adversaries where its red lines are so that they, and other concerned parties, will know the potential consequences of actions. Without a clear and articulated strategy, diplomacy is ad hoc, reactive and potentially quite dangerous.
Some will argue that the timing was also important in that it sent a signal to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Trump was hosting for a summit when he launched the attacks, that U.S. tolerance is limited and that Beijing should do more to help rein in Pyongyang. That may be a side benefit of the U.S. action last week, but the situations in Syria and North Korea are too different to warrant much comparison. Rather than trying to intimidate partners, the Trump administration would do well to develop a coherent and consistent foreign policy, one that transcends the anger and understandable outrage of the U.S. president.