President Donald Trump promised on Monday that within 24 to 48 hours he will announce a “major decision” about the Syrian dictatorship’s recent chemical attack on its own citizens during that country’s long and bloody civil war. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump added, and he promised “It will be met, and met forcefully.”
So for the next 24 to 48 hours, if not much longer than that, one can only speculate what that forceful response will be. He’ll be getting advice from his newly-installed and third national security advisor, a recent Secretary of State, several brass-laden generals, and a United Nations ambassador who’s proved pretty savvy, but they’ll be laying out unsatisfactory options and Trump tends to go with his gut rather than expert advice. Trump’s gut is hard to predict in this case, because it’s a damned complicated situation.
The long and bloody war in Syria is being waged against the second-generation dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which no decent person likes, but is backed by the military might of the Iranian theocracy, which no decent person likes, as well the mightier military of the Russian dictatorship, which even Trump is lately having second thoughts about. On the other hand, one of the various factions waging war against Assad is the Islamic State, the head-chopping and crucifying bunch that has supplanted al-Qaeda as the world’s most deranged Islamist terror gang, and no decent person likes them. There are other factions, too, including those plucky Iraqi Kurds who have sustained the sort of democracy that President George W. Bush envisioned when he launched the second Iraq War. You’ll even find some factions who purport to be fighting for something like modernity, although they seem to have the lesser hand.
You’ll also find a few thousand American troops in the mix, and they find themselves in an especially damned complicated situation. They were first sent there by President Barack Obama, whose incoherent foreign policy had once dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV team” of Islamist terrorism and praised Assad as a “reformer,” then went to a limited war against both, and they’re still there in the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy, which had boasted that it will soon pull all American troops out of the theater after their great victory over the Islamic State but is now promising a forceful response to the Assad dictatorship’s outrageous chemical attack on its own people. In both administrations American troops have clashed with both Assad and Islamic State forces, and it’s always been clear who they’ve been against, but never quite clear who they were for.
Even the simplest wars are complicated enough, but in this case all the political implications will be mind-boggling for Trump’s gut. He ran for president on the promise to be even more isolationist than Obama, and went far further in criticizing the Bush-eras of Republican foreign policy, but he also derided all of his presidential predecessors as a bunch of wimps who’d gone easy on Islamist terrorists and the Syrians and Iranians, even as he gave the Russians a pass, so it’s hard to say what his gut tells him now.
One of Obama’s most conspicuous and poll-damaging foreign policy fiascos was declaring a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to back it up after the Assad regime gassed its own people for a second generation, and Trump got bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls after he responded to another chemical attack with a relatively harmless cruise missile strike on Syrian airbase. That didn’t deter Assad and his allies from the most recent attack, though, not after Trump announced he would soon be pulling all American forces from the theater, and another missile strike might not have the same political effect.
Trump might choose to wage a more aggressive war against the Assad regime, then take all their oil, as he’s talked about, which would be as tough as he’s always promised to be, but it would also break his promises about being even less Bush-ian than Obama, and more recent promises about pulling all forces out of Syria. Waging a more aggressive war against the Assad regime entails a more aggressive war against the Iranians and Russians, and despite Trump’s tough talk his gut doesn’t seem to have the stomach for that. As for taking their oil, Syria actually doesn’t have much of it, and it would be a violation of the same Geneva Convention as Assad’s gas attack.
Diplomatic pressure could bring the world’s dislike of both the Assad dictatorship and it’s allies and what’s left of the Islamic State to inflict greater economic damage, but Trump also ran against international coalitions, and is lately threatening hardball negotiations with all our trading powers, so even that surprisingly strong UN ambassador is going to have a problem pulling that off.
Trump is rightly if pettily noting that all of his presidential predecessors failed to avert the damned complicated situation he finds himself in, and we have to admit it is a damned complicated situation. None of the available responses seem satisfactory, even if you leave Trump’s naked political self-interest out of the equation.
Any country’s chemical attack on its enemies, especially its people, is an affront to international law and human decency that cannot go unchallenged. Lobbing a few missiles at an empty air base won’t do much, though, and a war to effect regime change will entail all the things Trump criticized about the Bush years. That Obama-like promise to pull all American forces out is already proving problematic. All of which is further complicated, of course, by the ever expanding “Russia thing” here at home, which has lately required a harder administration stand against Russia.
The only thing we’ll bet on is that our erstwhile Kurdish and putatively pro-modernity allies will wind up losing, and that the outcome won’t be happy for anyone involved. Still, we’ll hope for the best.
— Bud Norman