It was a wise choice on President Donald Trump’s part to strike the Syrian airfield from which the Syrian government launched a nerve agent attack on its own people. Even those who remain unconvinced about the country’s new president must admit that last month’s airstrike came as a relief. After years of United States abdication, the president deserves credit for striking a blow – the first of its kind – against such a foul regime, thereby making good on the red line that former President Barack Obama lay down, but never enforced.
Although Trump ably met his first challenge, more difficult ones lie ahead. Exaltations that “America is back with a new sheriff in town” are premature. The bloodbath in Syria is nowhere near its end, and the conflagration presents a continuing threat to U.S. ideals and interests.
On its own, Trump’s retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s horrific and illegal use of Sarin gas in Idlib province is likely to produce a salutary deterrent effect on those wicked enough to contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction in the future. But if America’s bombing is to be anything other than an attempt to salve our anguished consciences, the president must resolve to avoid the old Clintonian trap of launching punitive strikes devoid of any strategic purpose.
In matters of war and peace, even a flawed strategy is better than no strategy. If U.S. credibility and influence is to be restored after years of neglect, a fusillade of Tomahawk cruise missiles will have to be followed by a serious and sustained effort to achieve a political settlement in Syria to end the civil war. Toward that end, Washington must resolve to oust Assad from power.
In matters of war and peace, even a flawed strategy is better than no strategy.
There is a familiar argument that a regime change in Damascus would be strategically foolish, as it would commit the United States to serve as Al-Qaeda’s air force. This claim – repeatedly propagated by Assad and his Russian patrons – is preposterous. For starters, the Syrian civil war has reignited Al-Qaeda as a force on the world stage. One reason is that during the past six years, the military assets of the Syrian regime have been primarily directed not at the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) or even the Islamic State, but at the moderate opposition. There is good reason to believe that once Assad’s military hardware is neutralized, the jihadists’ ranks will thin.
Critics of intervention posit the risks of military action against the Assad regime without any idea of what would replace it. This is a sensible fear given the range of malign forces that stand to benefit from the destruction of the Assad regime. But this fear can also be turned against critics of intervention.
The ghastly alternatives on offer in Syria, after all, have been put in motion by the Assad government itself in an effort to discredit the rebellion. The House of Assad may eventually succumb to these forces on its own. But even if it does not, it will continue to pursue the obliteration of the moderate opposition, and with it, the only hope of pulling Syria back from the abyss.
The near-term aim must therefore be to obliterate Assad’s airpower. In the long run, the United States and its allies must establish safe zones – enforced with further missile strikes and air sorties – for Syrian civilians and the moderate opposition. It must supply military support and training to the Free Syrian Army. If these mutually reinforcing objectives can be achieved, it would be possible to imagine a solution to the Syrian crisis on the model of NATO’s rescue of Bosnia.
Meanwhile, the U.S. should continue to vigorously pursue the extinction of the caliphate of the Islamic State. If Washington bolsters the Syrian Kurdish assault on ISIS with heavy artillery, Apache helicopter gunships and forward-deployed advisers, the fall of Raqqa may not be far off. Such an outcome will prove that striking Assad was never a diversion from the struggle against jihadism, but an essential component of it.
Brian Stewart writes for the Philos Project, from where this article is adapted.