On Monday, the White House released a statement announcing that the Syrian government appears to be preparing for another chemical weapons attack against rebel groups in the north. The Pentagon confirmed that in the past 24 hours those indications had become “more compelling.” The White House statement also warned that, while the United States is in Syria primarily to fight ISIS, if President Bashar al Assad uses chemical weapons on his people again, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
The Trump administration appears to be throwing down the gauntlet not just to Syria, but also to its allies Russia and Iran. Yet Trump’s motivations for doing so are not entirely clear, and broad public support for a more aggressive Syria policy is by no means a sure thing.
So Is Trump Reticent to Go to War Or Not?
In April, Trump approved the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The move surprised many, who took Trump for a hardline isolationist based on the president’s remarks during last year’s presidential campaign and on comments he made several years ago, urging then-president Obama not to take action against the Assad regime.
One explanation for such an about-face is that Trump, who is known to be impulsive, yielded to the pressure of the moment and his desire to be seen as tougher than Obama, who infamously let Assad cross his chemical weapons “red line” with no consequences.
Indeed, Trump has shown in the past few months that one of the things he values most is being liked (an odd trait given his penchant to shock and provoke outrage). He doesn’t want to be criticized and he wants to be seen, ultimately, as the good guy. Thus, his decision to hit the Syrian airbase was reportedly made after viewing the awful pictures of children suffering the effects of Assad’s sarin gas.
But the warning issued Monday, that the United States is prepared to strike again, indicates that the calculus has changed in one of two ways. It could mean Trump won’t allow any use of chemical weapons to go unpunished and that this is the established policy of his administration going forward—that he is proposing his own red line, which he will enforce resolutely. If Trump is looking to scare the Assad regime into laying off the chemical weapons, it’s helpful that he’s made good on that promise once before. Call it the Trump version of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum: “speak loudly and carry a big stick.”
Don’t Make Threats You’re Not Willing to Back Up
However, it could also be a sign that Trump doesn’t want to use airstrikes again, regrets his April retaliation against the Assad regime, and is hoping that a stern warning will be enough to deter Assad this time.
The problem is that the warning, regardless of its motivations, might not work. If that’s the case, the United States will have to follow through on its threat, which will inevitably escalate tensions with Russia and Iran in the region. The situation there is of course already quite tense, as U.S. forces have come into more frequent contact with Syrian, Russian, and Iranian-backed forces in the past few weeks.
The Trump administration knows this. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the warning was aimed at Russia and Iran, implying the two countries hold sway over whether Assad uses the banned weapons. Of course, Russia, Syria, and Iran have all responded to the White House warning with defiance and denial. Russia said any such American strike would be “unacceptable.”
This entire affair raises an important question. What is Assad thinking? It’s possible he thinks Trump’s muscular response in April was an outlier and won’t be repeated. But if Assad believes that the United States would launch retaliatory airstrikes again, why would he again authorize the use of chemical weapons?
One reason is that perhaps it’s not Syria who’s calling these shots. It’s possible that Russia is pressuring Assad to use chemical weapons, because while it wouldn’t be in Syria’s best interests to provoke the United States into action against Assad, possibly even trying to oust him, it could benefit Russia.
Moscow wants to embroil the United States in another boondoggle of a war in the Middle East, to undermine American credibility and shake up our domestic political scene. A disastrous and unpopular intervention in Syria would also make it less likely that America would go poking its nose into Russia’s schemes in Eastern Europe, and would surely hamstring a Trump administration that’s grappling with multiple Russian hacking investigations.
That Way Danger Lies
One additional thought. Launching more airstrikes against the Assad regime would test the patience of the American public, who, although generally supportive of the April missile strikes, may not be happy to see a pattern emerge of increasing U.S. intervention in another Middle East conflict.
Consider some recent history. In December of 2012, before Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line,” three-quarters of the American public were against the U.S. military getting involved in Syria; however, 63 percent agreed that military force would be appropriate if Assad used chemical weapons. However, by the following August, after Assad used chemical weapons that killed 1,500 civilians, that number had dropped to 42 percent. After Trump ordered airstrikes in April, approval of that move was at 66 percent, although only 57 percent of voters more generally wanted to see the United States launching such airstrikes.
It’s one thing to see the horrors of chemical weapons and respond in the moment. The American public has forbearance and even sympathy for that. But Americans are very fickle about foreign conflicts, and their opinions on the matter can change on a dime.
David Fromkin, the beloved historian who recently passed away, once noted that while Americans might begin by supporting intervention in a given country, as soon as they see U.S. soldiers dying for “any cause other than protecting the United States,” they are swift to demand that their leaders withdraw. Let’s hope Trump keeps that in mind as he tries to formulate a Syria policy that Americans can support.