Disclaimer: This piece purposely ignores the legal argument about exactly what falls within the purview of the President’s legal powers. Presidents, Republican and Democrat, clearly do whatever they see fit militarily and have for decades. I do believe that they should need congressional authorization, but seriously have you seen the sad sacks of cowardice in our legislative branch? Do you actually think they will stick their necks out about anything? I also have no interest in arguing the hypocrisy of Trump’s actions going against his criticism of unauthorized strikes made by the Obama administration. Any arguments made about hypocrisy in the Trump administration, at this point, seem smug, self-congratulatory, or based in a naiveté that he cares about lying to people, a notion that everyone should be disabused of by this point.
What the Trump administration did last night is symbolic violence. People who think that symbolic violence, like spanking children, is effective will laud the President for his leadership. People who understand that this strike is nothing more than a way for a hopelessly overmatched man to look powerful will not. The Trump administration launched 59 tomahawk missiles in an attempt to look strong, in the same way that unsophisticated people who know nothing about strength and courage drive massive trucks to look strong. This strike has done nothing more to add to the security or perception of the US around world, than buying a Ford F-350 adds to the weight that I can lift on a bench press. What the US military did was ceremonial.
The strike accomplishes nothing for a few reasons. First and foremost, we told the Russians before we struck the Syrian Airbase in Al-Shayrat. The Russians have been Syria’s closest ally for decades, dating back to Russian support for Syrian independence from France in 1946. When thinking about the Russia — Syria relationship it is important to know that Russia’s only naval base with access to the Mediterranean Sea is in Tartus, Syria. In Putin’s neo-Soviet mindset it is absolutely essential to have access to the Mediterranean Sea in order to have influence in Europe. Furthermore, Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Arabic Middle-East (Iran is a Persian nation). Russia has been actively supporting the Assad government with weapons, and also by leading bombing runs against rebel groups — including the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army.
Telling the Russians about the strike before it happens ensures that the Syrian Army could make preparations, and certainly could move the chemical weapons, if any had remained at the Al-Shayrat airbase. Trump’s own national security advisor has said that Assad will, “maintain a certain capacity beyond this particular airfield,” when asked about Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.[i] If the Trump administration was serious about diminishing the chemical weapons capabilities of the Syrian Army then they would have hit more of the strategic locations that they know contain chemical weapons, and they would not have told Assad’s best friend that they’re going to strike. A true effort to diminish the chemical weapons capabilities of the Assad regime would take American soldiers on the ground in Syria, which Americans do not, and should not have the stomach for after fifteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oh wait, they’re already there — only they’re fighting ISIS, the main combatant trying to overthrow the Assad regime.[ii]
Make no mistake, this is not an endorsement of ISIS or what they have been doing as a means of trying to overthrow the Assad government, this is to say that our actions in Syria are completely and hopelessly without a plan, and that is fundamentally unacceptable if you are putting American soldiers’ lives at risk. By beginning to bomb the Assad regime, even ‘limited’ or ‘strategic’ strikes we risk the ‘mission creep’ towards another war.[iii] American military action generally begins as small, look at the Vietnam[iv] and Korean Wars.[v] Simply put, after consistently lying about nearly everything since the beginning of his campaign, no one should trust the Trump administration to not start the war, or — more importantly — to tell the truth about what is happening if a war were waged. The lack of a clear plan should be the most concerning issue in regards to our future interventions in Syria, especially seeing as we have already begun to put American lives at risk.
Syria in 2017 is extremely complicated, but can ultimately be boiled down to this: despite the campaign against ISIS being successful in terms of decreasing the areas where they have control; the two main powers in the nation are the Assad government and ISIS. To look at it another way — defeating ISIS means that Assad will continue rule. Assad is responsible, not just for poisoning his own citizens with chemical weapons, but for the vast majority of the civilian deaths in this conflict.[vi][vii] On the other hand defeating Assad makes ISIS ruling the country the most likely outcome. During the beginning of the uprising against Assad U.S. intelligence believed that there were more moderate rebel groups, but over time those groups have dwindled and become less powerful for two reasons. First, fighting the Assad government and radical Islamic groups like Al Nousra Front, Al Qaeda, and ISIS was too challenging and they were defeated. Two, young men who were radicalized by Assad murdering their families and destroying their communities saw that ISIS was the most well-equipped fighting force that gave them the best opportunity to get the revenge they sought.
There may have been a critical juncture here when the U.S. government missed the opportunity to support moderate groups, and thus the potential for a better outcome, in a more meaningful way than we have. This strategy has backfired in the past so many times however, that the prudence exercised by the Obama administration by not pouring weapons into a militia that we know little about was likely the right decision. After all, the slow and steady approach taken against ISIS over the last year has yielded results to roll back their gains. Where the U.S. has had no success is ending the violent quagmire into which the Assad regime has pushed Syria. There appear to be no good, or realistic options for removing Assad from Syria, at least while Russia continues to back him. The Trump administration close ties to Russia certainly complicate the intertwined mess that is Putin and the future of Syria, but that has been discussed ad nauseum by people far smarter than I. At the present juncture, any military actions in Syria lead the U.S. further into a two-pronged war in Syria with no good outcome anywhere on the horizon in the best-case scenario. In the worst case scenario Syria becomes a proxy-war in a bi-polar power struggle between the U.S. and Russia, oh, and there are still no good outcomes in sight.
The lack of palatable military actions in Syria however, does not mean that the U.S. should not become involved in the Syrian crisis. The war in Syria is the largest humanitarian crisis as far as the number of displaced people since the Second World War. Over 11 million people are currently displaced, over five million have fled the nation as refugees,[viii] and some groups estimate the death toll as high as 470,000.[ix] If the U.S. cares about the people of Syria, as the President indicated that he did in his speech following the Assad’s gas attack, we should prioritize helping the people that are running away from the Assad regime. After all, each of the 59 tomahawk missiles costs about a million dollars — $59 million could help a lot of people.