During his presidential campaign, President Trump said that we should focused on ISIS instead of Syria. He stated that we should get out of the nation-building business because it tore up what institutions existed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sent the message that a vote for Hillary Clinton would have meant military conflict in Syria, which would have triggered World War III. Not even 100 days into his presidency and Trump has done what he lambasted Clinton for contemplating. Last Thursday, Trump ordered a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield that was alleged to have been the base for a chemical weapons attack that the Syrian government perpetrated against Syrian citizens earlier last week. President Bashar al-Assad's attack last week is hardly the first time he has committed heinous crimes against his own people. It is part of an ongoing civil war that has been going on for nearly six years. Essentially, Syria got swept up in the 2011 Arab Spring protests and expressed discontent with the despotic al-Assad regime. Those protests escalated to military action since the protests were attempting to usurp al-Assad. Since then, opposition has arisen in Syria and not only created a divided Syria, but has strengthened the Islamo-fascist group ISIS. The Syrian Civil War has not only had repercussions in Syria, but also in Iraq, other neighboring countries that have had to take in refugees, and even in Europe, where the refugee influx has caused a rise in Far-Right populism and nationalism.
There are two main reasons why proponents would be happy with such an attack on the Syrian military: national security and humanitarian reasons. After the attack, Trump stated that "it is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons." Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the United States can no longer idly stand by as atrocities are carried out against the Syrian people, and as such, Trump made a justified attack on the Syrian military. Even some Democrats are happy with Trump's attack on Syria. By drawing the red line, Trump made it clear that he supports the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The act might not only act as a deterrent for Syria, but other major powers (e.g., Russia, China) might think twice before messing with the United States of America. Although Assad is a sadistic tyrant that the world can live without, I wonder if this is justification for Trump's missile attack or even further military intervention in Syria.
First, there is the question of how launching missiles onto a military base can be construed as providing humanitarian relief. Hitting a single military base while having zero effect on regime change or altering Assad policy does not do any favors to mitigate the plight of the Syrian citizenry. It only acts as a hollow, symbolic gesture, especially considering that planes were taking off from the airbase just hours later. And what if Assad uses chemical weapons on his citizens again? Will Trump respond with more military action, or will Assad call Trump's bluff?
Second, if the attack is in response to the chemical attack from Assad, it ignores the number of citizens not killed by chemical warfare. In February 2017 alone, which was Trump's first full month in office, there were 1,298 deaths caused by the Syrian Civil War, the vast majority of which were caused by conventional means. None of this considers the thousands that have died at the hands of the Assad regime through conventional means. Why is it that the thousands of people killed by conventional means does not merit Trump's attention or action, but the use of chemical warfare on less than 100 people does? Is it okay to kill your citizens only if they kill with standard munitions? An even better question: why was Trump against intervening in 2013 when chemical attacks were an issue, but suddenly is for it? For a president who claims "America First," he has yet to show how intervening in Syria is a vital interest or how Syria is an existential threat to the United States' people, freedoms, economic security, or territory, which is something he can't do because Syria does not pose that level of threat. The argument is that "Assad is a bad dictator who does bad things." If that's the logic and basis we're going off of, then the United States would need to intervene in every country that has oppressive regimes, which are the numerous purple countries in the map below.
Source: Freedom House
Third, I have to wonder about timing of the U.S. military to attack. Obama was contemplating attacking Syria four years ago, especially since he made that untenable statement about how he would draw a red line on Syria using chemical weapons. His failure in Libya, as well as the lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped his thinking. Instead of further military attacks, he took a more diplomatic and coordinated approach, which at least resulted in Assad not using chemical attacks during the remainder of the Obama administration. Intervention would have been easier four years ago when Obama was contemplating it than it would be now for two main reasons: 1) the Assad regime was not as fortified or powerful as it is now, and 2) Russia has ground and air forces supporting the Assad regime.
Fourth is the lack of a legal basis for the attack, and that's not solely based on whether a president needs congressional authorization prior to making such an attack. Jack Goldsmith, who was legal counsel to former President George W. Bush, already made the argument that while chemical warfare against one's own citizens is a violation of international law, so is bombing a country without the action being in self-defense or "to maintain or restore international peace and security."
Finally, I think we have to be worried about expectations. One is the speed and ease with which Trump capriciously switched positions. The Trump administration announced on March 30 that they have no interest in opposing Assad, and then fired missiles at a Syrian airbase six days later. Even if Trump feels committed to the cause right now, what happens if he gets us militarily involved and decides a few months later that it is not worth it? This leads into another concern, which is a lack of corresponding strategy. Was the Tomahawk attack a one-time punitive action or will this lead to further action? The fact that we cannot answer that question shows a lack of preparedness of the Trump administration, which is ironic considering that he said in April 2016 that he would not deploy military force without a plan. Relatively speaking, the United States had more of a strategy entering Iraq and Afghanistan than Trump has right now. If the United States were to militarily intervene in Syria, it would need to figure out how to coordinate with the international community to rebuild cities, demilitarize Shia operatives and ISIS, and how to end the civil war. The Right-leaning Federalist even published a nice list of 14 questions the Trump administration should be open enough to answer before we should continue discussing or considering military intervention in Syria.
Given the tone Trump has set about ISIS (e.g., he would "bomb the shit out of them," he would "kill terrorists and their families"), as well as the posture of the war hawks in Congress, there is the issue of mission creep, something that even the Right-leaning Heritage Foundation worries about. And even if neoconservatives got their wish and we were fully involved in the war in Syria, can we realistically expect that we will oust Assad, bring democracy to Syria, keep jihadists at bay, and keep Russia and Iran happy? Our past attempts to "stabilize the Middle East" not only left Iraq and Afghanistan in direr straits, but led to the ascent of ISIS. There's also the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate that the United States pays for to this very day. The United States intervened in the Vietnam War, and all the U.S. got was over 58,000 dead soldiers, over 153,000 wounded soldiers, and a unified Vietnam ruled by Communists. The United States' track record on military interventions since after WWII is not exactly flattering.
And if you want more proof to effectiveness on military interventions, read Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict by political scientist Patrick Regan. He studies 175 military interventions from 1944 to 1994, and finds that 30 percent of interventions succeed in terms of less violence and loss of life. There is also another study that shows that outside military interventions on behalf of rebel factions actually increase the likelihood of violence (Wood et al., 2012, p. 29). The results of these studies make sense given that military powers often have little information of what is taking place on the ground, especially when it comes to understanding the conflicting goals of the factions involved.
These are the sort of issues that should have us concerned about Trump's attack on the Syrian airbase. Trump's Tomahawk attack by itself is not going to change the political reality on the ground (National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster already admitted as much), and it is not going to make Assad grow a conscience. Having a more lasting effect would need to involve more than Trump's $60 million stunt. This is the first major foreign policy decision Trump made since becoming president. As such, Trump's Tomahawk attack and how he subsequently reacts to the situation in the Middle East is going to dictate U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his term.
Without an actual plan, I am not confident in the United States' ability to stabilize the region. I am even less confident because Trump wants to boost military spending while cutting the Department of State's budget by nearly a third (120 retired generals thought these cuts were folly). Even if Trump were willing to put in the military resources for a full-scale war, I am not only worried about the fatigue that the United States experiences from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I also worry that it would come at the cost of more soldiers' lives, billions of dollars that the United States does not have, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. As we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we can put money, soldiers, and arms into a full-scale conflict, but even that level of intensity can lead to ultimate failure.
It's not simply an issue of getting involved in another war, but also Trump's sudden, capricious shift in a key foreign policy issue combined with a lack of long-term strategy. While it is possible to have limited and effective strikes (e.g., the Balkans), we have seen that most military interventions fail and increase the likelihood of bloodshed. Time will tell as to whether Trump's attack will be considered a success or failure, but based on the available information, abandoning caution and a pursuit for a long-term strategy while jettisoning diplomacy and other non-military options is unsettling indeed.