The long-overdue attack on Assad’s forces finally came together at unheard of speed – almost faster than leaks about its planning could escape from the Pentagon. That’s only one of the good things about the action President Trump ordered against the Syrian airbase.
Most important, it may deter other horrible chemical attacks against civilians in Syria or elsewhere. It won’t end other atrocities, of course; and it won’t end the complex war in Syria. But it’s still crucial in humanitarian terms that one red line is back.
There was constructive collateral damage to any hopes Russia may have had that Trump would be their man in Washington. According to the NY Times:
Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, told reporters Friday morning that the strike “deals a significant blow to relations between Russia and America, which are already in a poor state,” …
Although the Pentagon says that it warned Russian forces and tried to avoid killing them at the airbase, we also made clear that we do not regard the Russian presence in Syria as a shield for Assad. That’s important. The Russian troops were inserted after President Obama made the worst mistake of his presidency by setting and then ignoring a red line at the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Putin likes the checkers tactic of occupying vulnerable squares first so that action by the Us and its allies is frozen by fear of Russian casualties and wider consequences (see Ukraine).
President Xi of China is at Mar-a-Lago for his first visit with President Trump. The attack on Syria adds credibility to Trump’s message that China must constrain North Korea or the US will.
Before the latest chemical weapons atrocity, the Trump administration did signal that there might be a role for Assad in post-war Syria. We’ll probably never know if that emboldened Assad (if you can use the word “embolden” to describe a cowardly attack). But this signal may have had two fortunate results: 1) the aftermath shows that acts have consequences; 2) there is no appearance that the administration was “out to get Assad”. He was offered an olive branch; he committed a barbarous act; his ability to act was diminished.
My second quibble is that we didn’t do more. “Proportional response” has not proven an effective deterrent. It leaves the enemy contemplating a tit-for-tat and the short patience we Americans have. I think we should have totally destroyed Assad’s air force. I certainly don’t think we should have made the public statement, which we did, that this is all that we’re doing. Too much useful information for the enemy. Why not let them worry?
I’m overjoyed to see that Trump can change his mind as facts evolve. This is a strength and not a weakness. Too often American politicians are trapped by not being able to admit they were wrong.