Trump’s Syria Reversal is Incoherent and Dangerous

A U.S. Navy destroyer launches a Tomahawk missile in the April 7 strike.

Last Friday, President Trump ordered a military strike against the al-Shayrat Syrian airbase in response to a chemical attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate three days before.

Two U.S. Navy vessels in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, striking the airbase and destroying several Syrian aircraft and killing up to nine Syrian soldiers.

Just a week earlier, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Assad’s position was a “political reality” that needed to be accepted.

Besides being a dramatic and sudden reversal of Trump’s Syria policy, the strike was blatantly illegal and unjustified. Whereas past U.S. presidents have justified military actions with a congressional authorization, a UN Security Council Resolution, or under the pretext of a NATO mission, there was no apparent justification beyond Trump’s own whim.

Trump did not bring his case to congress. He did not present any evidence to the American people that the Syrian government was indeed responsible for the chemical attack. A mere three days after the April 4 incident, Trump decided to take action before any investigation had taken place. Given the doubt about culpability and past rebel chemical weapons use, it was an incredibly reckless move that put further strain on U.S.-Russia relations.

Why did Trump shift course on Syria so suddenly? Despite what he claims, Trump did not order the strike out of humanitarian concerns, as the U.S. is itself guilty of killing civilians in Syria, and Assad has been killing civilians since the war began. The strike also accomplished nothing strategically. The next day, the airbase was operational again.

Perhaps Trump ordered the strike to set himself apart from his predecessor. Obama received much criticism for not enforcing his “red line” after an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack in 2013. This was Trump’s chance to appear “strong” and decisive.

It could also be that Trump wanted to divert attention from the numerous allegations of collusion with Russia that plagued his campaign starting last summer and are now overshadowing his critical first 100 days in office. Trump knows by now that a military strike is the easiest way to win praise from even his fiercest liberal opponents.

While the nature of the chemical attack does suggest the government is the most likely culprit, we can’t draw any conclusions until an independent investigation has taken place, which would be incredibly difficult given that Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda and information that comes from there is heavily pro-opposition.

These events leave a key question unanswered. Why would the Assad regime conduct a chemical attack on a target with little to no military significance, at a time when he is winning the war and just days earlier, the White House declared his position as ruler of Syria a political reality?

Perhaps Assad really is foolish enough to do the one thing that would reverse U.S. policy with regard to his regime. Or perhaps we’re dealing with a principle-agent problem and it was conducted by a rogue element of the Syrian air force without Assad’s approval. Either way, any opposition source that claims the regime is responsible should be heavily scrutinized.

The civil war in Syria, which is really more of a great power proxy war, has lasted for so long because the U.S. backed al Qaeda and other ideologically-allied rebel factions. The U.S. even tolerated the rise of ISIS as a bulwark against Assad, until its brutal methods attracted world attention.

The fact is that, contrary to the conventional hawkish opinion and a certain faction of the pro-regime change left that has emerged during the civil war, the U.S. has not been neutral in the Syrian conflict. The CIA armed and trained over 10,000 fighters against Assad. U.S. allies Turkey and Qatar have also been instrumental in backing Salafist rebel forces such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra and an al-Qaeda affiliate) and Ahrar al-Sham.

It would be unwise to pursue further military action that would cripple the Assad regime and hand the country over to the most reactionary forces on the battlefield. The administration has, however, given mixed signals about additional strikes.

The U.S. has mostly refrained from military action against the Syrian state directly, but by no means have they been standing on the sidelines. Instead, the slow bleeding of Syria by the U.S. and its allies over the past six years has needlessly prolonged a war without changing the outcome. Assad is still winning, with Russia doubling down on their support, and barring further U.S. action, the opposition will continue to crumble.

Unfortunately, Trump’s incoherence on foreign policy and his willingness to bend to political expedience is placing Syrians in further danger and increasingly puts us at odds with Russia.