Syria Chemical Attack: Trump Won't Make Assad Pay a 'Big Price'

(Bloomberg View) -- In characteristic shoot-from-the-hip fashion, Donald Trump has already promised that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will pay a “big price” for the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack this weekend. Yet here as in so many cases, Trump should think before he tweets.

The sad reality is that America’s ability to change the course of the Syrian war for the better, and without paying a “big price” itself, has been dwindling for years. What’s more, Trump now seems set on dissipating what little leverage the U.S. has left.

“The tragic aspect of policy-making,” Henry Kissinger once remarked, “is that when your scope for action is greatest, the knowledge on which you can base this action is always at a minimum. When your knowledge is greatest, the scope for action has often disappeared.” This aphorism captures the trajectory of U.S. policy toward Syria.

In retrospect, if there was ever a time when the U.S. should have intervened decisively against Assad -- whether through direct military action or more forceful support for the Syrian opposition -- it was in 2011 or 2012. Back then, the opposition held the military initiative, extremists did not yet dominate the anti-Assad forces, and Russian and Iranian military involvement in support of the regime was still comparatively minimal.

A determined push might have dislodged Assad, or at least pushed him toward a negotiated transition. Yet at that point, the full moral and geopolitical awfulness of letting the conflict rage was still only gradually coming into focus, and it appeared that Assad might fall even without Western intervention.

By the later stages of Barack Obama’s presidency, conversely, it was clear that Assad would not go absent a stronger U.S. effort, and the consequences of non-intervention had become painfully obvious: a body count approaching 500,000, the rise of the Islamic State, unprecedented Iranian and Russian influence in Syria and the broader Middle East, and toxic spillover contaminating much of the region and beyond.

Yet by this juncture, the momentum had shifted against the rebels and the opposition was increasingly led by extremists. Iran and then Russia had intervened militarily, in ways that constrained American freedom of action and increased the risk of unwanted escalation.

In 2011-2012, the scope for successful intervention had been greater but American policymakers had not fully foreseen the costs of standing aside. By 2015-2016, those costs had become clear but the scope for effective action had narrowed.

This is the dilemma the Trump administration has confronted since it took power. Indeed, if there is a déjà vu quality to the policy debate in recent days, it is because almost precisely a year ago the administration found itself at a similar juncture, following a previous chemical weapons attack by the regime.

Then, Trump tried to thread the needle with an essentially symbolic use of force -- a cruise missile attack on a single Syrian airbase -- that was meant to “punish” the regime while scrupulously avoiding any deeper military involvement or escalation with Moscow. (In deference to Russia’s dominant role in Syria, the administration even provided Russia with advance warning of the strike, to ensure that none of its personnel would be injured or killed.)

Administration officials claimed that this strike would provide Washington with the diplomatic and military leverage to begin moving Assad toward the exit, or at least deter him from using chemical weapons again. Yet in reality, such a limited use of force had effects that were more limited still. Regime offensives continued and Assad has resumed gassing his own people.

There is little reason to expect a better outcome today. Another pinprick military strike in response to Assad’s most recent outrage would be emotionally satisfying. It might even lead to a temporary halt in Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But it would almost certainly have negligible impact in terms of stopping the regime from murdering civilians by an array of other means, and in altering the larger course of a conflict that has been going in the wrong direction for years.

If Trump is serious about making Assad pay a “big price,” the U.S. could intervene in ways that might actually make a strategic difference. The U.S. military could, for instance, undertake a larger, sustained air campaign, not just against a single airfield, but against a range of Syrian military assets and symbols of Assad’s power. It could make its response not “proportionate” but deliberately disproportionate to the offense that triggered them, as a way of signaling that the U.S. is willing to turn up the military pressure in ways that could prove quite dangerous for both Assad and his Russian backers. Such strikes could be coupled with renewed and intensified support for the relatively few moderate opposition factions that remain, and -- even more ambitiously -- with the creation of safe havens for Syrian civilians.

Yet doing so would court all the same dangers and difficulties that have stymied such intervention to date. It entails a willingness to accept a significantly deeper U.S. military commitment in Syria. It means running a significant risk of escalation with Russia and Iran, should their forces be killed or should Moscow and Tehran simply decide that Syria is worth a sharper fight. It requires accepting these costs and risks at a time when the Defense Department is trying to limit U.S. military exposure in the Middle East so it can refocus on great-power competition in Eastern Europe and East Asia. And it entails doing all this in the knowledge that the prospects for success remain uncertain at best.

One can, perhaps, still make a principled argument in favor of this stepped-up approach, given the enormity of Assad’s crimes and the extent to which Syria itself has become a focal point of geopolitical competition. But whatever Trump may say, it seems doubtful that a president who has repeatedly criticized U.S. military interventions in the Middle East and called for getting out of Syria as soon as possible will be willing to pay the costs of this approach over any appreciable length of time.

In fact, Trump has recently appeared determined to squander what modest influence the U.S. still has in Syria. To the extent Washington has a viable option for shaping Syria’s future, it involves maintaining and even modestly expanding the U.S. military footprint in parts of Eastern Syria liberated from ISIS by the Syrian Kurds and associated Arab forces. Doing so wouldn’t produce a happy ending for Syria anytime soon. But it is nonetheless imperative to finishing off ISIS, giving Washington a bargaining chip in eventual negotiations over Syria’s political fate, and avoiding simply surrendering all of the country to Assad and his patrons.

Yet despite the counsel of his generals, Trump has called in recent days for the prompt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria so that undefined “other people” can take responsibility. If Trump follows his own instincts, Washington’s ability to shape events in Syria -- and perhaps, eventually, to mitigate the horrific human suffering occurring there -- will go from limited to non-existent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

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