How U.S. Action In Syria May Create Another Vacuum For Terrorists

Lessons from Iraq and Libya should linger as we plot our engagement in Syria

On Thursday, President Trump authorized and confirmed the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at Al Shayrat air base in Syria. The bombing was in response to President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of sarin gas in an attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in rebel-held northern Syria, which opposes Assad’s government.

The attack reportedly left 70 dead and hundreds more affected, which would make it the deadliest use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime since the attack on Damascus in August of 2013. President Trump’s response marks the first direct involvement from the U.S. in the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011.

After Trump’s statement following the attack, his overall intention remains unclear ― to deter future use of chemical weapons or commence the ousting of Assad? In response to the 2013 attacks on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, President Obama did not retaliate militarily, but did secure a promise, however shaky it may have been, from Assad to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons.

If the intention is to ultimately oust Assad, then it is vital the U.S. look to the current state of both Libya and Iraq, and remember how each state arrived at its current situation. Both countries were swept up in the wave of hope brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings, beginning in Tunisia in 2010. Since then, not one of the countries involved has established desired or lasting political change.

For Iraq, the U.S. involvement began with the 2003 coalition that toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Following the power vacuum and political turbulence created by Hussein’s sudden absence, extremist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda were effectively able to establish influence in the U.S.- occupied country.

In 2011, when U.S. troops were withdrawn, these extreme groups further cemented strongholds throughout the country, which led to the return of U.S. troops. President Trump has recently ordered an escalation of operations in Iraq, culminating most recently in the March 2017 attack on the city of Mosul, which reportedly killed over 200 Iraqi civilians.

In Libya, the ousting and killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi also led to a power vacuum, eventually filled by extremist militant groups. Today, the country is essentially a failed state run by these terrorist groups. Recently released phone transcripts between Gaddafi and Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, reveal that Colonel Gaddafi predicted that extremist groups would come to power in his absence.

Gaddafi warned, “They [jihadis] want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe.”

These situations, like the one in Syria, are not simple or straightforward, but there are lessons to learn from each, and the Trump administration should take great care and precision in how they proceed. Russia has consistently supported Assad’s regime, providing them with weapons as recently as 2015. Their support of Assad muddles the conflict even further, as Putin immediately condemned the missile strike as, “an act of aggression against a sovereign nation in violation of the norms of international law.” China has also condemned the attack.

A vacuum in Syria could be devastating to the U.S.-led fight against extremist terrorist groups, as the Syrian Civil War has already been a galvanizing factor for terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.

Despite the unilateral move by the president, who vowed to remove the U.S. from foreign conflicts during his campaign, there has been support from both sides of the aisle.

Senator Chuck Schumer said, “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will commit a price is the right thing to do.” He continued, “I salute the professionalism and skill of our Armed Forces who took action today.”

In what may be the first time Hillary Clinton and President Trump have agreed on something, Clinton offered her support of the military move in an interview hours before the attack.

“We should have, and still should, take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people,” she said, referring to the Obama administration’s decision not to strike following the 2013 Damascus attack.

Fighting terrorist groups becomes so difficult because the enemy is not clearly defined or visible. As such, the U.S. has continually faced decisions regarding dictators and how to respond to humanitarian crimes committed. It is not an enviable position, however, it is the position the U.S. has assumed, and therefore, it must choose its maneuvers wisely, acting always with the past in mind.

In Syria, the U.S. must remember Iraq and Libya.