Just 48 hours after saying the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack last week “crossed many, many lines,” President Trump approved the immediate launch of 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian airfield.
Yet in the days since his decisive action, Trump has been conspicuously quiet on Syria while his administration has struggled to articulate if Thursday’s missile drop was a symbolic “one-off” or part of a broader U.S. strategy targeting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Foreign policy and military experts say that even limited strikes could risk pulling the U.S. further into a conflict with no clear exit strategy, and the establishment of a “red line” could mean greater chance of military escalation.
“It’s a one-off only if Assad complies,” said Barak Mendelsohn, a professor specializing in international security at Haverford College. “It’s clear that if Syria does something like this again, the U.S. will not be able to hold off and say, ‘That was then; we’re not going to respond anymore.’”
Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, took a similar position when praising Trump’s strikes, in Politico, “It is now the heavy responsibility of the Trump administration to ensure that this enforced ‘red line’ be maintained.”
But the administration has struggled to define its red line. On Sunday senior administration officials were offering seemingly contradictory statements. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said there could be no peace in Syria as long as Assad was in power. But the very same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a more reserved note, saying there “has been no change” in the administration’s “posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer jumped into the fray, telling reporters Monday that “if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president.” But the White House soon walked back this position, in yet another example of the administration’s muddled line on Assad.
By Tuesday, Tillerson was offering yet another take, issuing Russia an ultimatum that Moscow must choose between the U.S. and its allies or Assad. “I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson added. Yet he stopped short of calling for Assad to step down.
Despite the administration’s vacillating position on Assad’s future, and diplomatic bluster from both superpowers, U.S officials have continued to sell Thursday’s strikes as a limited, proportionate show of force aimed at curbing Assad’s use of chemical weapons, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis saying Tuesday that “the Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”
Last Friday, in a show of defiance, Assad’s forces conducted attacks from the very air base that was hit by U.S. missiles the night before, and have continued to use barrel bombs in the days since, according to independent monitor The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran, Assad’s two strongest allies, have set their own “red line” while doubling down on their support for the dictator.
Rather than being a symbolic show of U.S. military might that scares Assad into following international law, the Trump administration’s limited strikes and confused rhetoric may push the U.S. deeper into Syria’s intractable six-year civil war.
Robert Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria under President Barack Obama, told VICE News hours before Thursday’s surprise U.S. attack, “Limited strikes are not a cost-free solution.”
And the U.S. military’s recent history in this area doesn’t bode well, warns Micah Zenko, senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations. “I have studied limited U.S. military operations such as Thursday evening’s cruise missile strikes for almost 20 years,” he wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine on Sunday. “[T]hey rarely achieve their political objectives of deterring a foreign government or armed group from doing something, or compelling them from stopping an ongoing activity.”
Moscow looks poised to keep the saber-rattling going during Tillerson‘s scheduled visit to Moscow on Tuesday, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warning over the weekend that the two superpowers were “on the verge of a military clash.”
Despite the bluster, Mendelsohn offered some cautious optimism, saying the administration’s show of force could give the U.S. a diplomatic leg up in convincing Russia to rein in Assad. Russia and the U.S. do have the common interest of defeating ISIS in Syria, and before Thursday’s strikes, Tillerson was expected to discuss possible U.S.-Russian cooperation in that fight.
“Assad has made stupid mistakes before. It is possible he oversteps his boundaries,” Mendelsohn said, “but I think that Russia, too, will tell him he needs to be very careful.”
Ryan Evans, writing at War on the Rocks, was less generous and warned of unintended consequences and inevitable mission creep. “I worry that an attack on just a single air base could be seen by the Assad regime as nothing more than symbolic and have the opposite intended effect.”
Trump’s next order of business is figuring out what problem to tackle first. Until the strikes, the administration seemed committed to following through on an existing Syrian strategy of prioritizing war on ISIS, which the administration still seems to prefer.
But that strategy may now be at the mercy of an unpredictable notion: Assad, Russia and Iran actually observing Trump’s now-military enforced “lines.” If his past conduct of war crimes and blanket rejections of wrongdoing is any indication, Assad and his allies can hardly be relied upon.