What Trump Did and Did Not Achieve In Syria
Thursday night (early Friday morning, local time) U.S. President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Using nearly sixty cruise missiles, the attack is believed to have significantly impaired the combat efficacy of the Shayrat Air Base in Western Syria. The base is one of the primary facilities used by the Russia Air Force as a distribution hub for Russian supplies to Syrian government forces. It is also believed to be where Syria launched it's deadly chemical attack that killed more than 80 civilians on Tuesday.
The strike has been received with mixed response, with some praising it and others condemning it. Regardless of public opinion, the strike has achieved several things, but has also created several setbacks.
1. He's Changed Opinions...
The most immediate outcome of the US strike was an outpouring of responses from politicians and governments across the world. Several US allies released statements shortly after the action was announced, including Israel, Australia, and the United Kingdom, along with Germany and France, who have been mostly at odds with the new US president thus far. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also backed Trump stating that "Canada fully supports the United States’ limited, focused action."
In a joint press release Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Francis Hollande stated that “President Assad alone bears responsibility for this development" signaling support for the "limited and targeted" strike, without explicitly condoning it. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said that "Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable...those responsible must be held accountable." with EU President Donald Tusk stating "US strikes show needed resolve."
Countries Who've Voiced Support, Opposition to US Strike
Did the President Make the Right Choice In Striking Assad?
Despite the outpouring of reassurances from a majority of the world powers, not everyone is happy with the decision to directly attack the Syrian government. Trump's core populist demographic does not approve, believing that his campaign promise to end US forces from policing the world was hollow. Trump's foreign equivalents such as French Presidential candidate Marie Le Pen and UK Brexit advocate Nigel Farage have also voiced concerns, with Le Pen saying on French television that the US should "wait for the results of an independent international investigation" and Farage calling Assad's regime "secular."
At home, Trump's decision was met with mixed reactions as well, with some Congressional members standing behind the president, and others strongly criticizing the action. Hard-line conservatives and libertarians such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Senator Rand Paul (R–KY), both of whom ran against Trump in the Republican primaries, have denounced the move as unconstitutional. Far left Democrats have shared this sentiment. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D–HI), who supported Bernie Sanders for President, called the strike "shortsighted" while Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has called upon Trump to release a detailed Syria plan.
This could prove two sided however: while both the far right and far left have questioned the President's action, moderates from both sides have shown support. Sen. Jon McCain (R-AZ), a long time Trump critic, praised the strike stating "President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action." Both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R–WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who previously opposed similar action being considered by the Obama administration, have also voiced support as have several prominent Democrats including Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) and Chuck Schumer (D–NY).
Even Trump's presidential opponent Hillary Clinton seemed to be in support of similar action when during an interview the day of the strike she stated the US should focus on destroying Syria's air power.
"I really believe that we should...take out [Assad's] airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them."— Hillary Clinton, at an interview hours before the missile strike was announced
Trump's Press Conference Thursday
Trump himself seems to have done a one-eighty on the issue. While on the campaign trail he stated he would end US support of Syrian rebels and work solely to destroy ISIS, he appeared moved after the chemical attack upon Syrian civilians on Tuesday saying at a press conference Thursday night that "No child of God should ever suffer such horror."
Regardless of the domestic response, the attack has shown traditional American allies that the Trump Administration is going to stand behind human rights and against dictators like Assad, a stance that was previously in question.
2. He Established Rapport...
Trump's decision to use military force against the Assad regime is a direct break from his predecessors strategy. The Obama administration debated, in great length, striking the Syrian government and ultimately decided not to without Congressional consent. Although Obama's legal team maintained their position that a unilateral strike would not violate the law, Mr. Obama sought to legitimize his actions in the eyes of Congress. In 2013, Democrats introduced a bill that would have allowed Obama to use American naval and air forces to attack Assad's troops. The bill, Authorization for Use of Military Force in Syria, died in committee, and Obama made no further efforts before Russian forces began backing Assad in 2015, further complicating US involvement.
Now, the Trump administration appears prepared to act, even by itself if necessary. Trump's timing of the strike alone is evidence that it was a political move as much as a military one. Just as the US President prepared to sit down with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to begin a two day summit aimed at improving US-Chinese relations, he ordered the strike upon Syria, sending a strong and clear message to China and the world that he will deploy military resources when appropriate.
But most importantly Trump gave a sample of what his foreign policy will look like, and it does not include continuing the policy of "strategic patience" in Syria or anywhere else. In regards to Syria, the Trump doctrine appears to consist of limited, precise attacks and increasing non-military pressure while limiting ground troops. A more aggressive version of his predecessors strategy but falling well short of George Bush's Neoconservative foreign policy. While this strike unlikely means a "change in our policy or posture," according to Sec of State Rex Tillerson, the White House believes that Syria "should at the minimum agree to abide by the agreements they made not to use chemical weapons." Meanwhile the Treasury Department is working on a plan to increase sanctions against Assad.
Immediately following the strike however Syrian allies condemned the action, with Russia calling it "an act of aggression" and Iran going as far as to claim "terrorists are celebrating." The Syrian government made similar statements, with all three nations painting the US as enabling ISIS by undermining the international effort against the terrorist organization.
Putin himself said that Trump's decision will further strain US-Russian relations, which had became increasingly strained over the past several years.
On the campaign trail Donald Trump repeatedly called for the US strengthen relations with Russia by finding common ground on issues like Syria. Following his victory in November, several damning revelations have been uncovered regarding team Trump's connections with Russian insiders.
It appears that Trump is now prepared to stand firmly against Russia, even if they may have helped him win, dispelling the idea that Putin has influence over Trump. Where before Trump liked the idea of improving the dialogue between Moscow and Washington, he's show he will instead assert US authority in a targeted and precise capacity.
3. He Called Russia's Bluff...
Russia has previously, on several occasions, warned against the US intervening in the Syrian civil war, stating that they would engage US aircraft attacking forces loyal to Assad. Obama had been presented several proposals by his cabinet to curb Assad's strength, most of which called for targeting his air capabilities to prevent further civilian causalities. Ultimately, he chose not to take action, fearing the political ramifications would be too great.
But despite the threats, Moscow has tried to delay action from the US for as long as possible, knowing full well US action puts them in a difficult position. Despite the overwhelming amount of Russian resources deployed across the Syrian conflict, including installing a comprehensive air-defense system across the country, Russia is still far behind the US in military capability. Thus far Putin has succeeded because of his unwillingness to back down in the face of Western opposition. When he annexed Crimea in 2014, the US and European allies responded by placing what they believed to be crippling economic and political sanctions on Russia in an effort to force them down. They didn't.
Now, in the face of increasing US activism, Putin and friends must decide if they will make good on his threats of engagement, or will be more willing to consider diplomacy to resolve the six year long civil war. Trump's actions also test Putin's loyalty to Assad, who has been seen as blindly defending the Syrian dictator, even in the face of sanctioned attacks on civilians.
...and Fell Into One Himself.
Russia's immediate reaction was to cut all further communication with American personnel in the region, increasing the risk of direct clash between American and Russia military, and to announce they would strengthen their air defense systems in Syria.
While the mainstream media has decried both Moscow and Washington over the appearance of increasing hostilities between the two superpowers, it remains highly unlikely that Russia would truly engage with US aircraft over the skies of Syria, or anywhere else. American military power is still decades ahead of Russian, and everyone else, in both size and technology. The spending capacity, and domestic political situation in the US (a GOP controlled White House and Congress) would also ensure that a rapid response would most certainly come in the face of actual Russian aggression towards US troops. The insurance policy of course comes with NATO, which would certainly engage Russia as a whole should they shoot-first at US planes or ships.
But Trump now has a choice to make. Even if Russians don't start shooting down US fighters, they may increase attacks on rebel groups, abandon the effort against ISIS, or refuse diplomacy momentarily. Putin will certainty push Trump to see how much action he is willing to take to remove Assad as he is aware the US must either remove Assad, an idea previously dismissed by Trump, or continue operating in a conservative manner, striking only in specific instances.
The Bottom Line
In the coming weeks, the Trump administrations foreign policy will most certainly continue to emerge. As the Pentagon considers their next move, the G7 meet to create a united policy on Syria, and the US Navy redeploys units to the Korean peninsula, Trump will face a series of decisions that will outlay the remainder of his presidency. In regards to Syria, this strike will either be very good, forcing Russia to the table, or very bad, escalating an already complicated situation. Regardless, Trump's decision to confront Assad shows the world that the time for waiting is over. The "civilized nations" of the world must now take action if we ever wish to see peace in Syria.