President Donald Trump’s decision to launch targeted strikes on the Syrian government airfield, which was allegedly the origin of the chemical weapon attacks on the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun, marks a clear departure from previous US government positions on the Syrian conflict. The Obama administration’s position on the Syrian conflict can perhaps most charitably be described as dithering, with a seemingly infinite number of second-order “what if?” scenarios preventing the President from taking decisive action. Say what you will about President Trump, he has certainly taken decisive action and put a line in the sand where former President Obama seemed wholly unwilling. Trump stated that the missile strike was in ‘the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons’.
Just a few days prior to the American strike, the Trump administration had — via the inexperienced UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — effectively abandoned six years of US policy by stating that it would not demand the removal of the Assad regime as a prerequisite for peace. That position from the “shining light on the hill” was disturbing given the scale of the atrocity the Assad government has perpetrated.
The Syrian government is responsible for 79.6% of the total casualties in the conflict and 89.4% of the total civilian causalities. 470,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, almost 5 million have fled the country, many to Turkey and Europe, and there are 6.3 million internally displaced persons in Syria. There have also been previous chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government, however they met with little international response aside from the UN-led attempt to remove Syria's chemical weapon stockpile. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has now described that process as a failure, and has labelled Russia's failed commitment to deliver on those promises as either ‘complicit or simply incompetent’. The real question for the Trump administration is: why now? Were these other chemical weapon attacks also not in the vital national security interests of the United States?
The implication of previous Trump administration willingness to deal with Assad despite the obvious atrocities is two fold. Firstly, that the Assad regime and Russia were two air powers with a vested, though divergent, interest in destroying ISIS, and could therefore be useful to a President that has continually highlighted ISIS as the main threat to US security. Secondly, it spoke to the reality of the situation — that Syria is a deeply divided country and this is an intensely realist government. Syria is unlikely to be made whole again, but the rationale within the White House would surely have been “better the devil you know”.
However, with the release of images of children gasping for breath following the Assad government’s latest atrocity, it’s hardly surprising that President Trump felt the need to act. Given his past statements about how foolish the Obama administration would be to go into Syria and his seeming willingness to countenance maintaining the Assad government, even if for completely realist ends, it appears odd and concerning that the President should change his position so rapidly.
The situation on the ground is no longer as straightforward as it was in 2013, when former President Obama so famously invoked his chemical weapons “red line” and failed to follow through when that line was crossed. Russia is now playing such a pivotal role in the Assad war effort that their troops are interspersed throughout regime military installations, making any US assault on Assad government positions potentially explosive on a global scale. In fact, there were reports that Russian soldiers were present at Shayrat Airbase when it was struck by US missiles. But they had been warned ahead of time via the 'deconfliction' line and had presumably decamped.
Aside from Russia, Iran, a long-time Shi’a supporter of the Assad regime, also has numerous soldiers and volunteers in Syria fighting on behalf of regime. There are also American backed Kurdish rebels, and Kurdish backed rebels. There are Turkish backed rebel groups, US special forces, Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State, various unaligned rebel groups generally divided by either ethnic or religious affiliation, Turkish armed forces, Hezbollah and — possibly at some point soon — Iraqi armed forces. All are fighting for land, resources and influence within Syria, all have their own goals and all will have to be dealt with in a transition.
In a government so heavily stacked with former generals who have experience being bogged down in Middle Eastern ground wars, it seems bizarre that another chemical attack would be the catalyst for further engagement in the Syrian quagmire. The strategic goal of directly attacking an Assad regime position is not clear beyond the immediate retributive and diminished capacity effect it has on the Syrian government. There appears to be no strategy for increased involvement in Syria and for every action on the global stage there is generally an equal and opposite reaction.
The consequences of becoming increasingly engaged in operations against a Syrian government being aided by Russian and Iranian troops on the ground could be far reaching. As discussions of a coalition to force Assad from power gain traction, the world could really use a pause to utilise some Obama style second-order thinking. What happens if a Russian soldier is killed in a US airstrike? What if Iran takes retribution on US warships stationed in the Strait of Hormuz? What if Assad is forced from power? Who will take his place? What is the ultimate goal of intervention? What if? What if? What if?
Alexander Willox is the Commissioning Editor for Young Australians in International Affairs.