Last night, President Trump announced joint air strikes with Britain and France against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in response to his repeated use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels and civilians. This is an important step for American national security and the world order we helped establish, but it is only a start. The real test comes next.
As the world’s sole superpower and the leader of the free world, the United States has a responsibility to enforce certain international norms, one of which is a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. We cannot stop every dictator from brutalizing his own people, but we can say certain actions are out of bounds.
The fear, disgust, and hatred of chemical weapons the world learned from World War I was so strong that not even Hitler, the most evil man of the modern age, used them on the battlefield as his Thousand Year Reich collapsed around him. Since WWI, there have been numerous treaties in which virtually the whole world, including Syria, agreed first not to use and later not to even posses chemical weapons. Bullets and bombs may kill vast numbers of people, but we recognize poison gasses as uniquely cruel and fearsome weapons.
There is value in telegraphing to the world that while America cannot depose every tyrant, we can and will enforce certain rules of behavior. We won’t demand every country be a peaceful Western democracy, but if you step out of line and threaten the international order we helped establish and enforce, you will get smacked down.
That was the purpose of yesterday’s air strikes. It was a message to Assad that there are repercussions for violating the rules. The idea is to make the consequences so much more painful than the benefits Assad receives from terrorizing his people with chemical weapons that he never does it again.
Here’s the problem: that was the same thought process as a year ago when we last punished Assad for gassing innocent civilians.
Yesterday’s air strikes hit a chemical weapons research facility and two chemical weapons storage sites. That will degrade Assad’s ability to employ chemical weapons, but not necessarily his desire or willingness to do so. Assad is in a fight for his life. If he wins the civil war, he is a wealthy and powerful national leader; if he loses, he will likely be brutally beaten to death. Under such circumstances, Assad could logically conclude a few destroyed buildings is a fair trade off for speeding up his victory by using chemical weapons.
A missile campaign that targeted Assad’s military would have provided a much more robust deterrent. If the goal is to persuade Assad to never again deploy chemical weapons, a limited, proportional response is insufficient. Do real damage to what he really values, and that will cause him to reconsider the usefulness of proscribed weapons.
The problem is we have no sustained strategy in Syria. We react to provocations with pinprick strikes and then wait for the next atrocity. That may be the most we can expect right now, but it is not sufficient. Ideally, America would have supported secular rebels years ago when they could have overthrown Assad, an enemy of the United States with American blood on his hands. But Obama backed down when the opportunity was ripe and now it is likely too late.
Still, there is space between a massive invasion to implement regime change and ad hoc, limited air strikes against a few buildings that will not significantly affect Assad’s most precious resources. A significant attack on the Syrian military would show Assad real consequences for his actions, but we are unlikely to get it.
Without a sustained strategy, we now wait for the next time Assad gasses his people, at which point we may launch more limited strikes. Wash, rinse, repeat.