Trump is still a danger to America and the world. But if he exercises American power in a way that will help save lives and give a brutal tyrant and his backers pause in their relentless, murderous assault on the people of Syria, those claiming to care about refugees, human rights, and human life would do those stated cares justice in supporting a long-overdue substantive pushback against the outrages of Assad and his Russian friends. If you truly want to support refugees, supporting standing up to Assad.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse April 8, 2017
Mohamed Al-Bakour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
AMMAN — I had originally titled this piece “Time to Put Up or Shut Up, Donald.” As I continued to write, though, reports that Trump was considering military strikes against Assad’s government for his horrific recent chemical weapons attack on civilians designed to terrorize his own people surfaced on Tuesday, April 4th; that ensuing Thursday, April 6th, it was time for your author here to (finally) have some fun and go to a party, and by the time I got home, when I had already thought the odds of Trump eventually hitting Assad were greater than those of him not hitting him, the strikes had already been launched, necessitating something of a reworking of my article.
There is a lot to digest here.
Can Trump Succeed Where Obama Failed?
Full disclosure: I voted for Obama twice and enthusiastically but I would say the biggest mistake of his presidency was backing away from his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used them to barbaric effect against his own people back in the fall of 2013. At that time, Assad and his forces were reeling and U.S. military action targeting his forces, especially the Syrian Arab Air Force, would have been decisive in changing the trajectory of the Syrian Civil War, especially since a robust Western entry and enforcement of no-fly zones would have prevented Russia’s subsequent robust entry in the fall of 2015.
Now, in the spring of 2017, the situation is quite different: Assad has obliterated many of the rebel strongholds, most notably (and most tragically) Aleppo, and ISIS, too, has been severely weakened, facing its final days in Mosul, Iraq, one of its two last major strongholds, and in the process of being encircled in its other stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, its “capital;” furthermore, not only does Assad’s government have the active of support of the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah and of Iran’s military on the ground (among other Shiite militias), but it also enjoys the robust military support of Russia and its vaunted air force. And even though Assad’s military has been whittled to down a shell of its former self(even his Syrian Arab Air Force is running low on parts and serviceable craft and can ill afford aircraft losses), with his allies, he is in far stronger position now than he was when Obama backed away from striking Syrian forces in 2013, even if heavily dependent on these allies.
And still, the most powerful military force on the planet—that of the United States, which in 2015 spent more on its military than Russia and the other six largest military spenders in the world combined—can easily make a huge impact, and let those who employ the use of chemical weapons against civilians, or support those who do, know that there will be a costfor such actions. And it seems a warning shot has now been fired to that effect.
Before backing away from striking Assad, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden on August 31st, 2013, asking a question:
Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.
His words ring just as true today.
Obama sadly, and rather pathetically, did not put serious action behind his eloquent words about why we needed to support an international system where the use of such weapons of mass destruction as well as mass killing were not tolerated. The Republicans later skewered Obama for backing away—even as most of them hypocritically criticized his proposed military action at the time (many even signing a formal letter stating he needed authorization from Congress to act) before he backed away from it, a decision Obama made in part because they would not support him; Trump himself tweeted at Obama not to attack Syrian forces back then.
Since then, Republicans proceeded to criticize Obama for having a weak strategy even while offering precious few specifics that differed from Obama’s strategy, as did Trump, who, just as hypocritically as the others in his newly adopted Republican Party, also repeatedly asserted Obama’s weakness was responsible for the horrors in Syria up through his recent April 4th press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan that took place just hours after the recent Syrian government chemical attack in the Idlib area of Syria.
I figured that Trump, ever the narcissist, values his public perception as much as anything, and after beating up on Obama’s weakness for years, and given a chance to show himself to be the more “decisive” and “macho” “man” in a situation that had no choice but to be compared to Obama’s waffling in the fall of 2013 , would most certainly at least be tempted to reverse his pro-Russia and somewhat pro-Assad policy and to act to punish Assad where Obama declined to do so. As I watched him speak on the issue over the past few days, Trump even seemed genuinely moved by the horrific images of dying babies and other civilians coming out of Idlib.
And putting aside these considerations of personality here, there are very good reasons for Trump to have done what he did.
Why Trump Was Right
Before Trump fired cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield, Assad and his Russian backers were clearly feeling they could do anything they want and get away with it and feared no U.S. intervention; impunity would be their modus operandi, there would be no political settlements, no “peace negotiations;” no, Assad and his backers were going to continue to systematically exterminate any whiff of opposition, city by city, town by town, corpse by corpse. Concessions? To rebels? To terrorists? To “terrorists?” One must simply ask: why would he need to comply with the demands of the international community? What pressures existed that would actually constrain Assad or extract any concessions, especially when Russia—one of the most powerful nations in the world and with the most centralized power structure at the top of any major world power—would just lie and claim “terrorists,” not at the Syrian military, were to blame for whatever atrocity Assad (or Russia) had perpetrated, or that the atrocity in question had not happened at all, as it has for years? Does anyone think rhetorical flourishes from the West, Turkey, and Arab League members would change anything? When Russia has vetoed seven different United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime, with Russia’s ground, naval, and air forces (along with Iran and Hezbollah and other Shiite militias) inside Syria energetically empowering Assad to operate knowing there would be no substantive consequences no matter what atrocity he committed—even if he killed hundreds of thousands of people with indiscriminate attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians, even if used outlawed chemical weapons to kill his own people—what on earth is left to compel Assad to even feel the need to negotiate, let alone stop his mass slaughter of civilians?
The sad answer in our real world as it exists today is clear: one thing, and one thing only…
Military force exerted by the United States of America.
Especially with Russia operating in Syria supporting Assad, only the United States could lead any kind of military force to challenge the above status quo. Nothing else could give Assad pause or cause him to consider restraint. But the United States showed Assad that even with the Russian military there, his forces were not safe if President Trump, the U.S. Military’s Commander in Chief, decided to strike at him, which he did. And for all of Russia’s tough talk, its military and air force are far inferior in quality and numbers to their American counterparts, so the idea that Russia would risk a serious military confrontation with the United States over Syria is ludicrous because it would only result in devastating defeat at the hands of the United States with no chance of saving face and only a high cost as a result, much worse than any cost that could be inflicted on the U.S. After all, Putin is not stupid enough to engage in a nuclear war that would destroy both nations and likely the world over the likes of Bashar al-Assad. Thus, what was also demonstrated for the world to see how little Russian protection actually meant for Assad in the face of U.S. military might.
In this situation, there were two options: do nothing serious and allow a regime that has no interest, inclination, or reason in its mind to negotiate or concede anything to continue to kill anyone it pleases and destroy anything it wants anytime it pleases while facing no consequences, or the United States can hit back, send a message, and force Assad to bend to the will of the world by behaving less barbarically towards his own people or face serious consequences, from warning punitive strikes to major degradation of his armed forces to exile and/or the fall of his government.
And contrary to what you might hear, this can be good for mitigating the conflict overall. After all, as I wrote three years ago, the current dynamics are clear: with Assad and ISIS both waging war on the people of Syria, nothing will stop the flow of refugees that risk destabilizing Syria’s neighbors that include multiple major U.S. allies—a flow that has helped spur an explosion of right-wing insanity in both Europe (where Russia is “weaponizing” the refugee crisis to damage the EU) and America, a right wing insanity that feeds the rise of radical Islamic extremism even as the war in Syria does the same—unless the war stops and/or safe zones are established, as nothing will convince the more than five million Syrians who have fled Syria (and that number only counts those registered by the UN: Jordan alone is estimated to have around 800,000 unregistered Syrians, compared with only 633,000 registered ones; this doesn’t even get to the more than 6.3 million internally displaced people, or IDPs, inside Syria) to return home as long as an impudent Bashar al-Assad feels he can kill at whim and will while the world makes noise but ultimately shrugs its shoulders. These dynamics also feed the growth in violent Islamic extremism in a vicious feedback loop.
I hear and read too many “experts” present a false Sophie’s choice: either we let Assad win or ISIS wins/the war doesn’t end. Well, in case you’re missing it, ISIS is on the verge of having its “caliphate” destroyed—thanks to a slow but steady strategy of Obama’s that was clearly coming to penultimate fruition even before Trump was sworn in (a fact that won’t stop Trump from taking credit for it)—and history shows that non-intervention in brutal wars involving mass killings (e.g., Cambodia and Rwanda) can allow killing to continue unabated for a long time and can lead to genocide, while well-executed intervention (e.g., WWII, Bosnia, and Kosovo) stops or at least partially halts mass killing.
Now, of course, there is a possibility that the intervention will fail or make things worse—a possibility exaggerated by the recent memory of Iraq, more of an aberration of Western intervention in its relative mass incompetence than the post-Cold War norm—but any attempt to solve any problem in life risks making that problem worse, so that possibility is, by itself, an illogical reason to not intervene, a total cop-out, and a path to inhuman nihilism.
If you really care about refugees, if you really care about helping us, please, help us stay in our country… we don’t want to become refugees, we want to stay in our country, help us establish safe zones…please take out Assad’s air forces so they won’t be able to commit more atrocities.
The United States and its allies are more than capable of doing just that, and if Trump’s action is not a one-off—and let’s be honest, this ego-driven narcissist with authoritarian, even fascistic tendencies has had his first real exercise of power and he will love it, not in the least because he has earned global praise for it (and only it), so it very likely will not be a one-off—the likelihood is more than not that this is all going to be mainly handled by professionals in the U.S. military, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis is no Donald Rumsfeld. As detestable and anti-refugee as Trump is, because of his decision, there is now a greater chance than at any time since 2013 for the much-needed establishment of safe-zones protected by the international community.
It will also teach Russia that its recent run giving the West the finger has not empowered it as much as it thinks actually and makes Russia even weaker, with Russia unable to prevent American intervention in Syria even with its military there and seeing its investment in expanding its power there destroyed, exposing its troops to risk while supporting a WMD-using thug and making it even more so one of the most hated countries in the world and especially hated by a Sunni Muslim population (most of Alawite/Shiite Assad’s victims are Sunni Muslims) with a tiny fringe more susceptible to violent radicalization than any other group at present, keeping in mind that Russia has an oppressed Sunni Muslim population that has produced a notable number of anti-Russian terrorists and terrorist incidents since Russia’s conflicts in the Russian republic of Chechnya, the Caucasus overall, and the country of Afghanistan before that). As I wrote before, Russia intervened from a position of desperation and weakness, and Russia’s weak hand has only improved marginally for all its efforts but has also saddled it with more responsibility.
Also, as was I pointed out also back in 2013, there is still little risk to the U.S. and a high-probability of success in striking Assad’s air power, military bases, or heavy weapons, which are difficult or impossible to hide. Hezbollah, Assad, and ISIS have enough on their hands to devote much to any “response” to the U.S.
Finally—and again, I will repeat I thought Obama’s inaction (and the Republican-led Congress’s vocal lack of support) were a mistake in 2013—there is an important difference between now and 2013. Back then, as I noted above, Assad’s forces were being pushed back and U.S. intervention may have led to the toppling of his government, and this not long after the disillusionment of the experience of Libya’s post-NATO-intervention problems (although I still would say that the intervention was successful in saving many lives preventing a civil war from being prolonged, but more on that another time); no other major power had intervened in Syria and thus owned the conflict, to speak, and that was another solid argument Obama could have put out on the side of non-intervention, even if non-intervention was still the weaker overall argument. Today, Russia is heavily involved in Syria, far more than the U.S., and it is hard to imagine Putin simply pulling out and letting the situation devolve into chaos, a result that would be blamed in large part on Russia and that would hurt Putin’s prestige and his own credibility when it comes to Russia intervening anywhere. With another great power invested besides America, unlike in 2013, the idea that the toppling of Assad would result in anarchy and a terrorist safe haven is less of a likelihood, since now two great powers will be heavily invested in the outcome if the U.S. becomes more heavily involved and actions lead to Assad’s ouster or weakening.
If you let your justifiable hatred of Trump get in the way of your support of even someone like him doing more than anyone has yet to help the long-term situation of Syrian refugees—if you refuse to understand that these strikes may be the first step in creating paths for Syrians to safely return to Syrian soil—you care more about your personal feelings and personal politics than actually helping refugees at worse, or are incredibly myopic at best.
Causes For Concern
Don’t get me wrong: there are things about this that worry me.
I respect the U.S. military and Mattis and have faith in both of them, and it’s virtually impossible for a president to micromanage a major U.S. military operation without massive influence from his secretary of defense, and as awful as Trump is, at least in a situation like Syria today, I’d be more worried about a Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld combination than a Trump-Pence-Mattis combination (though unquestionably Bush is better individually than Trump), and I think Mattis will impress Trump with his competence as any operations unfold and will gain more influence in this way.
Having said that, I’m also scared about a Trump that gets a taste of military success, and am especially terrified with a North Korea now acting up when military aggression as a U.S. response on the Korean Peninsula would initiate a bloodbath that would make Bush’s Iraq invasion look mild in comparison, and especially so if Trump feels military adventurism is a preferred course when he is having a miserable time in domestic politics, which could lead to who knows what down the road.
I also worry that Trump being seen as the savior of Syrian refugees would make people forget about how awful his refugee and immigration policies are. I’m further worried that this will make people lose interest in his Russian scandals and make the Republican Party feel it will have cover again to obstruct and distract from the investigation after such actions (see the drama of Devin Nunes) had cost them. And I’m worried that this action may partly legitimize Trump and his dangerous program when, apart from this action, he and his program are not worthy of legitimization, only opposition and resistance.
So I will continue to vigorously oppose Trump and his agenda overall. But because I care passionately about human rights, stopping mass killing and genocide, and seeking a long-term situation for refugees and the Syrian Civil War, I will support his efforts to to go against Assad.
But the move made a tremendous amount of sense for Trump and his administration for political reasons, and the chance Assad gave him to act was also something of a political gift from heaven.
For one thing, Trump has had a miserable first few months on the domestic front, without a single major accomplishment he could take credit for thus far and nearing the end of his 100 days, with self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound resulting in likely the worst first 100 days of any president.
In other words, Trump might be looking at no chance of a major accomplishment whatsoever during his first 100 days; a domestic accomplishment still seems a remote possibility, leaving only the realm of something dramatic in foreign policy, which before Assad’s chemical attack, and during a week in which his team had signaled acceptance of Assad’s rule over Syria, there had seemed few openings of this type either. Acting against Assad would credibly give Trump a big “win” at a time he desperately needs one and might even be his only chance for one.
Speaking of desperate, Trump’s approval-rating average had dipped below 40%, a historic low for so early in a presidency; this opportunity was one of the only ways on the horizon for Trump to be able to bring his poll numbers up anytime soon.
He was also about to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at a time when his administration was a disgrace and after months of bashing China; Trump’s strike immediately allowed him to move from a position of humiliation to one where he could project power while hosting Xi, who expressed private empathy for Trump ordering the strikes even as China did not offer public support. It will be interesting to consider what effect if any this will have on North Korea and on America’s efforts to enlist Chinese aid in dealing with North Korea.
And, of course, the elephant in the room for the entirety of Trump’s presidency so far has been the Trump Campaign and Trump Administration’s deeply disturbing ties to Russia, Putin, Russian money, and Russian organized crime, including Russia’s obvious efforts to help Trump defeat Clinton in the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar. Striking the Assad regime, Russia’s only true in-power ally outside of the states of the former Soviet Union, while Russia’s forces are actively engaged in supporting Assad has provided Trump with an excellent opportunity to take some of the heat off of him and his people as well as to demonstrate he is not beholden to or being controlled by the Russians amid hardly-purely-speculative accusations and suspicions be might be. In other words, Trump could go on offense in his weakest area, deflecting attention away from his biggest scandal—and possibly the biggest scandal in American history—and acting in a way that could reassure some of his less strident critics and give his supporters some much needed-assistance and cover to be able to, in turn, provide cover for him (though, substantively, nothing he has done here does anything to address the possible realities of past issues with ties to Russia, but perception is very powerful in politics and this move certainly affects perception in Trump’s favor).
In other worse, Trump personally had so much to gain and so little to lose with competently executed, limited strikes at this stage.
In addition, at least some of Trump’s people must realize that the Democratic Party is still far less extreme that the Republican Party; unlike the Democrats, who said no to a takeover by the Bernie Sanders wing, the Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists for years, and, as I have noted, Democrats have been far more bi-partisan in their support of presidential foreign policy and national security than Republicans, so there was a good chance many Democrats would support this move in addition to Republicans and it seems that this is the case thus far.
Thus, politically, it was the best move Trump could have made with no other good options in sight. In some ways, it could even be called a no-brainer. If I were one of Trump’s political advisors, I would definitely have recommended this action.
Apart from the political considerations, the far more important considerations involve the actual policy and substantive non-domestic-political considerations and the human lives affected by this strike. And as someone who truly hates Trump and sees him as the threat to democracy and the world order that he is, it is here that as a student of policy and a person who cares about saving lives and preserving international norms that it is easy for me to support this action enthusiastically, despite my misgivings for the man calling the shots behind it.
© 2017 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome
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