On Thursday, President Trump responded to the heinous gas attacks by Syria’s Bashar Assad with a limited air attack on a regime airfield.
But the administration refused to answer important questions before launching 59 Tomahawks. The decision to retaliate was made so quickly that it’s doubtful the White House fully grasped how military action could affect its foreign policy agenda.
The emotional drive to “do something” quickly was a more important element in the decision-making process than consulting Congress or fully considering the costs and benefits of military force. And there are plenty of costs involved.
Punishing Assad in the short-term will complicate Trump’s desire to improve great power relations between the U.S. and Russia. Indeed, the fact Moscow cut off the deconfliction channel was not only a significant rupture in bilateral relations, but a move that heightened the risk to U.S. pilots flying in Syrian airspace.
Short of sending a symbolic message that Trump is willing to flex America’s muscle — or that he’s susceptible to rash reactions — the missile strikes won’t yield any positive strategic outcomes. Syria’s civil war will continue, with the combatants as intransigent as they’ve been for the past six years.
The war’s internal dynamics — a despotic government fighting against an opposition heavily influenced by extremists and jihadist factions — will proceed as if the strikes never happened. No amount of bombing from the U.S. could resolve this conflict; political problems can’t be eliminated with military solutions.
Tactically, the strikes merely delayed the airbase’s operations for a few hours. The very next day, Syrian aircraft from the same airfield bombed the same town gassed earlier in the week. Sending messages with $80 million worth of missiles was not a good U.S. investment.
Trump will hear from those who counsel greater involvement in Syria’s civil war. He would be advised to ignore those who would plunge us deeper into this proxy war defined by jihadist groups and rebel infighting. That doesn’t serve America’s vital national security interests. Better to augment diplomatic efforts to end this bloody conflict.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.