Donald Trump Would Be Right to Strike Syria
An opinion in favor of intervention
In apparently launching a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in western Syria on April 7, 2018, Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad seems to be deliberately testing, even daring, U.S. president Donald Trump to strike back.
In April 2017, Trump retaliated against a previous regime gas attack by inflicting significant damage on Al Assad’s ailing Syrian Arab Air Force. It seems almost certain Trump will also respond militarily to the 2018 gassing.
And he should do so. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2013, “it’s better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all.”
That doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t worry about how Trump might try to use strikes in Syria to divert attention away from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, help himself electorally or encourage calamitous wars with Iran or even North Korea.
Whatever his motivations, Trump was right to hit Al Assad in April 2017 … and would be right to do so now. Yes, mass murder by Al Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s forces continued after Trump’s first strike in 2017 last year, but larger-scale gas attacks ceased for a full year. That made the difference between life and death for countless Syrian civilians.
When then-U.S. president Barack Obama nearly attacked Syrian forces in September 2013 following a similar chemical assault, Al Assad and his forces were reeling. U.S. military action targeting his forces, especially the air force, arguably could have changed the trajectory of the Syrian civil war.
Backing away from a “red line”–in part because Republicans in Congress didn’t support his desire to punish Al Assad militarily—was one of the worst failings of Obama’s presidency.
In the spring of 2017, the situation was quite different. Al Assad had obliterated many rebel strongholds. Islamic State, too, had been severely weakened. The Syrian regime enjoyed the robust military support of Russia and its own vaunted air force. A year later in the spring of 2018, Al Assad is stronger still. Russia even felt emboldened to attack U.S. forces in Syria in February.
Even considering Al Assad’s increasingly favorable situation, the United States can and should place a high price on his acts of mass murder. Intervention gets harder the longer Al Assad clings to, and reconsolidates, his power. But the deterrent effect of U.S. attacks on the regime’s chemical campaign has saved lives in the last year, and could save more lives going forward.
It’s time, once again, to hit the Syrian regime.
Brian Frydenborg is a freelance journalist and consultant in Amman, Jordan. You can follow him on Twitter at @bfry1981.