WASHINGTON, April 10, 2017 – After years of Obama administration dithering on Syria, President Trump responded forcefully to Bashar al-Assad’s latest atrocity. Syrian aircraft bombed the outskirts of Khan Sheikhun with munitions containing the nerve gas sarin, killing at least 70 people. Relief agency Save the Children reported at least 11 children among the casualties. The Trump administration responded with a volley of 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the airbase from which the strike as launched.
The move was widely applauded. The use of chemical weapons fills many with revulsion, and the dead children are a potent image behind demands for Assad’s removal. The civil war in Syria has been marked by attacks on civilians by almost every party involved, but Assad’s previous use of chemical weapons, his attacks on hospitals and his attempts to starve city populations have stood out for their brutality in an already brutal war.
The move has also been condemned. Russians argued that Assad wasn’t responsible for the chemical attack, arguing that an al-Qaeda house was hit by a bomb, releasing sarin stored by al-Qaeda. Chemical weapons experts responded that the Russian story was fanciful, saying that the type of attack described by the Russians would have destroyed the sarin, not released it.
In the U.S., the Trump response has been met with both applause and skepticism. One criticism is that the Trump administration warned the Russians of the attack, allowing them to warn the Syrians. Some skeptics argue that this is a sign of Trump collusion with the Russians. Others claim that the attack is hypocritical, coming as it does in defense of people Trump refuses to admit to the U.S. as refugees.
The responses are widely political, and in that they’re misguided. Questions about whether Trump is a hypocrite, Assad is a monster, or Putin is still playing chess against American checkers players are interesting from a political perspective, but they don’t get to the real issues of Assad’s chemical attack and Trump’s response.
The list of questions that should be asked is long, but there are a few basic questions we could start with. First, what are America’s national security interests in this conflict, how are they served by attacks on Assad, and how are they harmed by chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians?
Trump has already said that our response is limited, revolving around the use of chemical weapons. That suggests either that our interest in attacking was humanitarian, or that chemical weapons use poses some special threat to our interests that other weapons don’t. Those other weapons include phosphorous bombs, cluster bombs, barrel bombs and volumetric bombs, weapons that effectively shred, suffocate or burn the flesh from their victims. The special threat posed by or the special humanitarian cruelty of nerve agents should be clearly enunciated by those who demand retaliation for their use while choosing not to respond to the other munitions used by Syria’s armed forces.
What are our ultimate goals in Syria, and how will we measure the success of our efforts there? Our initial military actions against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in both Gulf wars resulted in quick and decisive military victories. Their success could be measured in Iraqi soldiers killed and Iraqi equipment destroyed. If our ultimate goal was to destroy the Iraqi military, both wars were unqualified successes.
The destruction of Iraq’s military may have been enough for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who seemed baffled by concerns over Iraqi antiquities or the post-war security situation, but our success was less clear if it involved creating greater stability and security in the region and reducing threats from radical Islamists. If we wish to avoid another Iraq, we should ask how Assad’s removal will change the political situation in Syria, and arrive at the unambiguous conclusion that that change will enhance regional and American security.
What will it take to achieve the success we’ve clearly defined in Syria in terms of lives, time, cash, and support from other nations? Can we afford to see this through to the end, and will we be able to convince anyone else to join us on our grand adventure in Syria? Are we prepared to pay the political price for the humanitarian cost in Syrian lives, as well as the cost in American lives? Before we rain missiles on Assad, we should ask whether we’re willing to go as far as he is, and whether the benefits will exceed the costs.
Whether we are for or against military action in Syria, these are questions that we should be prepared to answer before advocating for specific action. Our horror at the deaths of children by sarin is not sufficient reason to attack Syria, and the removal of Assad from power is not a sufficient goal, even if it is well-defined. If the war in Syria threatens to escalate or spread across borders, doing nothing is no option, either.
The Trump administration should make a clear, solid case for military action before doing anything in Syria. The emotionalism, half-truths and outright fabrications that have driven our behavior in the region for the last generation have served us badly, with our goals and calculations there being less solid than desert sand in a windstorm. And to the end of focusing thought and clarity, that case should be presented to Congress.
If we are going to draw red lines that we’ll have to defend, we should know why we’re drawing them where. Otherwise we shouldn’t draw them at all.