ABDELFATAH: United States needs clear strategy regarding Syria
Opinions Column: Global Perspectives
Two Fridays ago President Donald J. Trump ordered a missile strike against the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack against its own people. The strikes, intended to both punish the Syrian government for the attack and to deter them from using such weapons in the future, targeted weapons research and storage facilities. These strikes, though, accomplished little and despite having taken action the president maintained that he wanted the U.S. to get out of Syria. It is becoming all too clear that the Trump administration does not seem to have a coherent long-term strategy for Syria — and it desperately needs one.
While the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons is something that should be enforced, the limited strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons capability is unlikely to discourage President Bashar al-Assad from using them in the future. The Syrian regime will most likely continue its chemical weapons program, according to a report compiled by the Pentagon. In fact, the continued support of Iran and Russia coupled with the relatively subdued U.S. response will embolden Assad and cause him to believe that he can act with relative impunity.
If the goal of the strikes was to protect Syrian civilians, then the strikes will have even less of an effect. Significantly more Syrians die as a result of conventional weapons than chemical. The only way to seriously protect innocent Syrians would be for the U.S. to commit to ending the war, a long-term commitment that would leave the U.S. entangled in yet another crisis in the Middle East. There is little political appetite for this on either side of the aisle and is highly unlikely.
While Congressional support for the strikes varied, virtually all members agreed that they wanted to see a clearer strategy from the administration on Syria. Many are frustrated with the mixed signals that the administration has been sending — first calling for the removal of American troops and then committing to prevent further chemical attacks. Some, such as Tim Kaine, the Democratic Senator from Virginia, felt that the president’s launching of an attack on a foreign power without Congressional approval was both illegal and reckless. These reservations were not limited to Democrats. Rep. Thomas Massie, a conservative Republican Kentucky, remarked on Twitter that he could not recall the Constitution giving the president the authority to strike Syria. Other Republicans supported the strikes while still calling for a comprehensive strategy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) praised the president for defending "America’s vital national security interest” and asked for “a real and comprehensive strategy for ending Assad’s threat to his people, to the region and to U.S. security, and for countering Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian dictatorship’s ongoing barbarity.”
Complicating matters is the U.S.'s desire to avoid escalation with Russia. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly persuaded the president out of taking more drastic action, arguing that it would have put the U.S. in conflit with Russia. The Russian government has been heavily supportive of the Assad regime and any large scale U.S. action against Syria carries with it a high risk of escalation with Russia. Even the relatively limited airstrikes caused some intelligence officials to be concerned about Russia’s reaction — with intelligence officers from across the country holding a video conference the day before the strike regarding the potential Russian blowback once the missiles were launched.
One thing Trump has been clear about is his desire to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. To replace them, the administration has suggested that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt form an “Arab force” to fight against ISIS and take control of security in Syria. This is problematic for several reasons. First, many of the states in question have vastly different priorities in Syria from each other and the United States. While the United States is primarily focused on fighting against ISIS, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are more interested in countering Iranian influence and opposing the regime of Assad. Egypt, on the other hand supports the Assad regime. Additionally, the Arab militaries are woefully unequipped to handle such an operation. As one Middle East security expert quipped, “Arab armies are bad at counterinsurgency, and even worse at war.” More worryingly, placing Saudi troops in Syria would put them in direct conflict with Iranian forces — turning what has so far been a cold war into a hot one and potentially destabilizing the region even further.
No matter what the administration’s goals are — be they deterring chemical weapons use, protecting civilians or something else entirely — it is clear that the occasional air strike will do little to achieve them. Without a clear strategy and distinct priorities, the U.S. will continue to spin its wheels but go nowhere with regard to Syria.
Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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