“I think the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” said Rex Tillerson at a joint conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevut Cavusoglu.
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” said U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Two days later Assad’s military forces dropped bombs filled with the nerve gas sarin on the Idlib province, killing up to 70 civilians and wounding hundreds of others in the first confirmed chemical attack since 2013.
The message was heard around the world and the United States was forced to respond.
It’s hard to erase the images from your mind. Children as young as three gasping for air and dying in the arms of family, friends, and strangers. Parents pleading for any help possible only to be met by sad eyes and the shake of a head saying “no, there is nothing that can be done.” There’s no question that Assad’s chemical attack is just another instance in the litany of abuses he has waged against his own people since the first waves of opposition sprung up during the 2011 Arab Spring.
When he initially took office in 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was viewed as a potential reformer and friend of the West. But that image quickly disintegrated as he moved towards friendly relations with Hezbollah and whispers of political assassinations and faked election results plagued his presidency’s legitimacy. This came to a culmination in January of 2011 when civilian protestors took to the streets demanding an end to the emergency state (which had been in place since 1963), the reinstatement of civil rights, and political reform. Instead of meeting these protestors with measured calm and an open ear, Assad chose violence to suppress the uprising. Unfortunately, for him, Arab Spring had already caught fire and spread across much of North Africa and the Middle East.
Since then Syria has been engulfed in a civil war that has cost up to 400,000 civilian casualties and has displaced more than 11 million people; and the rest of the world has been left wondering what, if anything, can be done to stop it.
Two days following the Idlib attack, Trump authorized a military response and 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles leveled the Al Shayrat Airfield. It was a measured response that was meant to be more symbolic than strategic. And one that has been met with both praise and caution. Praise for demonstrating that such actions should not go unpunished and caution because it was a strike against a foreign, sovereign government that failed to receive Congressional approval and was in direct violation of Trump’s campaign promises.
While I agree that something needed to be done, such action places America in an even more difficult situation. Assad may view the strike as a slap on the wrist and continue his assaults and civilian crackdowns without hesitancy because of the backing he receives from Russia and the lack of a larger international community response. But if he continues, will Trump issue more airstrikes against the Syrian government? Will he request that the Western European countries form a military coalition to bomb Syria? How does he balance out the costs of another conflict with his promise to reduce the budget? The lessons learned from Iraq make this scenario seem highly unlikely.
Assad may also turn his sights towards the nearly 1000 American ground troops currently deployed in Syria as potential targets. This would quickly escalate the issue into an all-out war with the United States; and for a country that has spent the last 15 years in conflict the appetite for war amongst Congress and American civilians is minimal at best. But let’s pretend that Assad is not stupid and knows that a war with the United States would lead to his defeat. So also not a likely scenario.
Finally, other countries may use the airstrike as grounds for their own advancement in the region. And it is this scenario that is already starting to play out.
Claiming that the airstrike was a “violation of international law” and an “aggression against a sovereign nation”, Russia quickly leveraged the American response to his advantage and initiated a more aggressive posture in the region. He deployed a missile warship to the Mediterranean Sea to help boost Assad’s air defenses while simultaneously cutting off communication with the United States and withdrawing Russia from the Deconfliction Air Agreement with the United States. (The air safety deal dates back to 2015 when Russia began its official military campaign in support of Assad and sought to establish air safety protocols to diminish potential conflicts between the Russian and American air forces over Syria).
Unlike Syria, Russia is a formidable foe and by cutting off communication and agreements with the United States, Putin’s betting that Trump will not launch any more airstrikes because he’ll have no way to forewarn Russian military so they don’t get caught in the assaults. Any Russian deaths would lead to a diplomatic crisis or military confrontation. So he will use this chance to shore up additional hold on to the parts of Syria most dear and near to his heart.
It’s a safe bet that Putin has a long term plan in mind. The question that follows is, does Trump?