At 4:40 a.m. local time Friday in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Donald Trump became a war president.
On his order, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles blasted off the destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter, arced over the Syrian coastline and headed 40 miles inland. The 20-foot-long missiles skimmed over the landscape at 550 mph. As they approached the Shayrat airfield, home to Syria’s 50th Air Brigade, guidance systems pinpointed each target: The missiles carrying 1,000-pound high explosive warheads went for the two main runways, underground bunkers and hardened shelters. Other Tomahawks armed with warheads each carrying 166 lethal bomblets destroyed aircraft, fuel and ammunition depots, and other “soft” targets with red-hot jagged shrapnel and concussive force.
It was a highly technical and tightly coordinated operation, for which the military has long planned and practiced, and it appears to have been carried out flawlessly.
But giving the nod to one $94 million missile strike bought Trump far more than a presidential moment at a temporary lecturn at Mar-a-Lago, where he announced the attack Thursday night. He seemed to have a premonition that things would change earlier in the week when he acknowledged, “I now have responsibility” for Syria.
Now he really does. What comes next is the difficult and perhaps impossible job of managing the rest of this war, a conflict that has killed at least 470,000 people over six years, including 55,000 children. Backed by Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad battles bands of murderous and heavily armed fighters, as well as dwindling ranks of “moderate” rebels supported by the United States in an uneasy coalition with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others.
The horrendous chemical attack by Syrian government forces on Tuesday caught the Trump administration ill-prepared. Candidate Trump had campaigned on an “America First!” commitment to keeping the United States far away from nasty foreign conflicts. As a result, there is no obvious public support for deepening the American military role in Syria with additional ground troops. The effort to train and equip enough regional forces to topple the Assad regime has failed. The Trump White House has no strategy to direct its next military steps and lacks the senior staffs at the Pentagon and State Department critical to devising new war management plans. At the Defense Department, in particular, only one of 53 key civilian officials ― Secretary Jim Mattis himself ― has been nominated and confirmed and is at work.
While candidate Trump boasted of having a secret plan to “destroy ISIS,” the radical Islamist militia fighting in Iraq and Syria, President Trump has given no sign of having such a plan. And yet now he’s offered a direct challenge to Assad’s regime. For all the world to see, the U.S. just pivoted from fighting ISIS to taking on Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked that it was up to “the Syrian people” to decide Assad’s fate. On Thursday, he declared that the way forward in Syria required “an international community effort” that “would lead to Assad leaving.”
That change in goals is causing considerable angst in Washington.
“We now need a comprehensive strategy with clearly-defined purpose and objectives for how we achieve our national security goals in Syria and the region,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement Friday. “We can’t pour resources and risk the lives of our troops in a new military conflict without a clear and comprehensive strategy and full consideration of the long-term ramifications,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) agreed. “The consequences of a misstep are grave,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
As in most national security crises, there isn’t much time. Tillerson heads to Moscow next week for critical meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest political and military ally. Putin’s initial reaction to the U.S. airstrikes was mild. He temporarily suspended participation in a communications link that enables U.S. and Russian air controllers to avoid potential air collisions over Syria. Presumably, he too is watching for Trump’s next steps.
A clear-cut, thoughtful and practical strategy for Syria would have to consider to what degree Washington will now treat Moscow as a diplomatic colleague or a military foe in Syria; whether more U.S. airstrikes will help or hurt diplomatic initiatives to work toward a ceasefire; whether additional U.S. airstrikes or ground troops, beyond the roughly 800 Americans already deployed in Syria, are committed; and how to avoid clashes with Russian aircraft and ground troops already operating there.
Among the purely military options, for instance, is setting up “safe zones” for refugees inside Syria ― an idea that candidate Trump supported. But planning for safe zones has foundered on issues such as what forces would guard these zones on a daily basis, how to sort out actual civilian refugees from suicide bombers or militia fighters, and which combat troops would defend the zones from a concerted regime attack backed by Russian and Iranian forces.
All that is difficult enough. But the non-military aspects of the situation are more challenging.
“Much more of the heavy lifting is about the diplomatic piece than the military piece,” Christine Wormuth, senior Pentagon official for strategy and plans during the Obama administration, told The Huffington Post. “All the factors that were in place during the Obama administration that made finding a solution to this terrible conflict so difficult remain in place today,” she said.
Managing opponents like Russia and Iran, while keeping friendly allies in line, will demand extraordinary diplomatic finesse, Wormuth said. That’s without even addressing the question of who would govern Syria post-Assad. Not to mention the job of helping rebuild the country after the war.
Syria is “a horrible, intractable mess,” Wormuth said.
The Trump administration will find the new fight it launched with the Tomahawks “considerably harder” to wage without a full supporting staff, she warned.
The secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the national security adviser “are working 24/7, I’m sure, but they can’t do everything,” Wormuth said. “They need senior lieutenants to carry out some of this.”