Editorial: A shortage of options for U.S. in Syria

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis responds to a reporter’s question about military action in Syria during a meeting with Netherlands Minister of Defense Ank Bijleveld at the Pentagon in Washington on Wednesday. AP

Friday, April 13, 2018

In the past six months, the government of Bashar al-Assad has conducted several chemical weapons attacks on rebel opposition forces in Syria. The latest came over the weekend in Douma, where dozens were killed by chlorine gas.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten Syria and Russia with a military response, tweeting: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia,  because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

But by Thursday morning, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made it clear that the imminent strike may not be so imminent after all. “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning. “But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control – if you get my drift on that.”

We do, indeed, get his drift.

The fact is that Assad has won the war for control of Syria, which has been raging for eight years and at a cost a half-million lives. It is also evident that neither Trump nor his advisers have an appetite for removing Assad from power by way of a major military operation. And we believe it is equally unlikely that Trump would support a decapitation strike against Assad, his family and his lieutenants. So what’s left?

Last year, after Trump saw pictures of the sarin attack on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, his response was to attack a Syrian airbase with cruise missiles. That operation barely ruffled the feathers of the “gas killing animal.” He never stopped using chemical weapons. A similar strike this time around would have similar results.

There is no doubt that Western nations need to hit hard against Assad for his continued use of chemical weapons against his own people. That said, Trump backed himself into a corner by suggesting a military strike is imminent. If he backs down now, he risks comparisons to President Barack Obama, who drew a “red line” in 2012 regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then didn’t follow through.

Knowing what we do about Trump’s ego and impulsiveness, it’s a safe bet that he would rather strike without any sort of long-term strategy than have his inaction be compared to that of his predecessor.

We believe that Mattis’s desire for a more cautious approach to the situation in Syria is the correct one. Until the United States creates a coherent policy on how to handle Assad and his allies in the region, and how to address the long suffering of the Syrian people, any surgical strike is meaningless. 

Trump may have inherited the Syrian problem, but that’s no excuse to avoid the hard work it will take to create a path forward. The president should stop tweeting and listen to the people around him who understand what can be done to stop Assad from committing further war crimes. And then he should act.