After Syrian government forces allegedly perpetrated a sarin gas attack against civilians this week, the U.S. has once again found itself fumbling for a response. After a similar attack in 2013, the Obama administration accused the regime of “crossing a red line,” then looked to Congress to authorize the use of force. Congress waffled, and so did the president. Obama encountered significant criticism for equivocating and for allowing the Assad regime to get away with war crimes. While Obama did in fact equivocate, he justifiably kept the U.S. out of war with Syria, and by extension, Iran and Russia.
Trump’s decision to launch strikes against Syrian government targets therefore marks a dramatic shift in both the president’s own posture and America’s role in the Syrian civil war. It remains unclear whether U.S. strikes will mark a strategic reorientation or if it is Trump’s way of distinguishing himself from his predecessor as an American president that acts on red lines. If it is the latter, then Trump will make his self-indulgent point and the issue will soon pass. If it does in fact signify a new American posture, then Trump’s response is legally, politically, and strategically flawed.
The strategic folly of war in Syria has not changed since last week.
From a legal perspective, sarin gas is a nerve agent and schedule 1 substance that is outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention. If the regime did in fact perpetrate the attack – an allegation strongly supported by evidence but disputed by Assad and Putin – then the attack constitutes a war crime. But deliberately targeting civilians with any weapon, chemical or not, is also illegal in international law. The daily bombardments (by all sides in the conflict) violate the Geneva Conventions and many “conventional” attacks are also war crimes. Yet, that is the heartbreaking reality of the Syrian civil war. There is no suddenly compelling legal case for intervention when civilians have been targeted every day for six years. This is neither the first, nor last, war crime committed.
Politically, Trump’s sudden newfound sympathy reopens the question of Syrian refugees. His so-called “Muslim ban” remains in legal limbo but he has clearly indicated an aversion to embracing Syrian refugees fleeing from the horrors of war. The chasm between word and deed and the fixation with brute militarism over genuine humanitarianism is striking and should not go unnoticed. This war has created a refugee crisis of historic proportions with over 10 million Syrians internally and externally displaced. Much like the sarin gas attack, it is a humanitarian travesty. Genuine sympathy would require a meaningful shift in the President’s rhetoric and policy toward Syrian refugees.
Finally, the strategic folly of war in Syria has not changed since last week. Prior to the latest attack, Trump ridiculed both Democrats and Republicans who favored an anti-Assad strategy, noting the “madness and idiocy” of simultaneously fighting the Syrian regime and ISIS. This position largely paralleled my thinking on the issue. Toppling Assad will not only distract from the primary objective – defeating ISIS – but will also create a dangerous vacuum with few moderates left to fill. There is no indication that a post-Assad Syria would be a secular, democratic, pro-American state. If anything, it will likely resemble post-war Iraq or Libya, neither of which serve as a testament to the prudence of regime change.
Nonintervention in Syria was one policy on a strikingly short list of things that Trump had right. His recent shift is likely to go very wrong. It is time to rethink the red lines instead of acting impulsively on them.