The Syrian Civil War, a conflict that is now seven years old, has evolved from a rebellion of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule to the Middle Eastern version of the Spanish Civil War with larger powers using the conflict as a part of the larger regional and international struggle for supremacy. Once again, the Syrian government has committed yet another atrocity involving chemical weapons and once again, the West is left facing the same options it did in the past atrocities.
Trump and the West are right to condemn the attack but mere words cannot change the situation on the ground. The promise of firm action is undermined slightly by Trump’s earlier statement of pulling troops out of Syria. He might have backed away from it now, but the damage is done. Now, Trump has promised to take action.
Bolton’s First Test
The hawkish new National Security Advisor John Bolton is facing his first diplomatic test right out of the gate. In the past, he has advocated war with Iran and North Korea though he has stepped back from his comments recently.
His decision will be crucial. The role of the advisor is to establish the cold, hard facts, gather intelligence and process the information clearly while offering useful advice. All of this has to happen in the initial frantic hours of learning of the situation when emotions are running high and even the unthinkable options are being discussed. The advisor needs to consider not only the options of the action itself but how it will impact the bigger picture.
Despite the criticism, Bolton is not stupid nor is he driven by ideology alone. He is intelligent, has put forward an idea to keep track of Weapons of Mass Destruction that is gaining traction on both sides of the aisle. He’s hard-working and not afraid to voice his ideas, his skepticism for bodies like the UN tempered by an understanding that military action should not be the first resort and that diplomacy must be given a chance to work.
The trouble is that he’ll be trying to gain Trump’s trust and approval and Trump likes yes-men, people who agree with him and tell him anything is possible. Bolton’s intolerance for inexperience will make his interactions with Jared Kushner interesting to watch for while critics fear that Bolton and Pompeo will allow Trump to rush into dangerous confrontations.
Trump’s next move on Syria will be partly influenced and inspired by what Bolton advises, a situation which will speak volumes as to how he intends to tackle future problems and what it could mean for America’s foreign policy.
The Blame Game Continues
As always, Trump decided to blame others for the mess. Iran is a valid target since it was their early support that helped Syria weather the storm until Russia made its move.
Blaming Obama is a little trickier. It is true that Assad rolled over Obama’s red lines and yes, Obama let the war rumble on and let the bad turn even worse. However, it’s important to remember the context of why he did nothing. For one thing, many predicted that Assad would fall in the early stages of the war and for a while, he looked like he would. That was before Iran stepped in to help, followed by various terrorist groups, before Russia joined the fray and before ISIS swept into international infamy.
That was the first problem: the war got very complex, very fast. The second problem was Obama’s election on an anti-war front. It’s easy to forget that, right before the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, Obama had pulled US troops out of Iraq and scaled down efforts in Afghanistan. Part of his campaign was devoted to his opposition to continuing the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, to pulling out of disastrous military quagmires.
The fact is, however you cut it, the most effective option for ending the war would also be the most costly. Syria would be another military quagmire, only even more complicated. If Iranian or Russian troops were killed, things might spiral out of control. It would be Lydon Johnson all over again: fighting the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam.
Cards On The Table
So, just what are Trump’s options? They are relatively limited, ranging from harsh words and international condemnation to a full-scale invasion. He could authorize more airstrikes or send more support to rebels fighting Assad, but he wants action now.
The truth is, there is very little that Trump can do and it’s clear that whatever he does, Assad won’t be listening. The last time Trump took action involved firing a barrage of missiles on one airfield with very little damage reported. Even if he launched airstrikes or dropped the Mother of All Bombs, it will make no difference to the war on the ground.
It is clear that Assad is winning his civil war using whatever means necessary to impose fear upon his exhausted and disheartened people, backed by Russia and Iran. He is unafraid of Trump’s bluster, knowing that the West will do nothing against him for fear of re-enacting a sequel to the Iraq War. Even if they did retaliate against him with sanctions, airstrikes or even a limited ‘boots-on-the-ground’ approach, the price would be worth paying in his mind.
Assad is supremely confident in victory and he knows that nothing can stop him now. Let Trump tweet out new nicknames! Let him bombard another airfield! Let him undermine his shaky alliance with Kurds fighting ISIS by pulling out US troops suddenly! Right now, Assad is winning so much, he might grow tired of winning. His people are certainly tired of fighting back after seven years.
Regardless, Trump will take action. It will be quick and decisive. It will be a surprise to friend and foe alike. Judging by past experience, however, it will prove to be pointless.