WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syrian facilities in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons against civilians fulfills Trump’s promise of being tougher than President Barack Obama.
But it’s unlikely to have much impact beyond that ― and will likely be historically judged as a failure on Trump’s own terms.
Trump’s military response alongside France and the U.K. is ostensibly an attempt to deter Assad’s murderous behavior and demonstrate American toughness to Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia. It won’t serve either of those goals.
With Trump broadcasting his intentions for days, Assad has already relocated the air force that carried out the attack last weekend, according to military experts at the Institute for the Study of War. His forces have also reportedly evacuated personnel from some Syrian government buildings where military systems like chemical weapons are being developed. Those troops and resources have been moved to central locations that the U.S. and its allies won’t be able to target without prompting a larger confrontation with Russia and Iran.
Pentagon officials told The New York Times that even if Syrian aircraft cannot be hit, the U.S. could damage airfields and make it impossible to use them for future similar attacks. On Friday night, officials said the U.S., France and Britain hit a research site, a command post and a store of chemical weapons. But such facilities are easily rebuilt. After the U.S. struck Assad’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun last year, the base was back up and running within hours.
Since then, Assad has continued to take territory from the rebels ― often using brutal tactics including mass starvation and indiscriminate attacks with especially deadly “barrel bombs.”
“The strikes will reaffirm President Trump’s commitment to deterring chemical weapons use but will not solve the Syria problem,” Jennifer Cafarella, the senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote on Thursday. “They are unlikely to alter the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to slaughter his rebelling population with conventional munitions.”
[The strikes] are unlikely to alter the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to slaughter his rebelling population.
Jennifer Cafarella, Institute for the Study of War
Already in a comfortable position, Assad has no reason for a major change in behavior unless that’s essential for the survival of his regime. Though Trump hit Damascus on Friday night and suggested there might be further strikes, he has not yet directly threatened the government’s survival.
Trump administration officials, including new national security adviser John Bolton, have separately spoken of using U.S. policy in Syria to challenge Russia and Iran, rival nations that have expanded their reach there while helping Assad fight the insurgency. But the strikes are unlikely to bring the Trump administration closer to that goal, either.
With Trump still not announcing a broader policy for Syria, the U.S. remains a far less credible player there than any members of the pro-Assad coalition. “Russia is far more of an ally to Damascus than the U.S. is to the so-called rebels or even Kurds,” Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told HuffPost.
Trump has eroded the confidence of America’s allies in the country ― most notably the Kurd-dominated force responsible for the triumph over ISIS. The Trump administration allowed Turkey to take over a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria earlier this year, and Trump spoke of fully withdrawing the thousands of Americans currently stationed in Kurd-controlled regions. One-off hits on Assad targets mean little for the relationship between Washington and the most powerful Kurdish militia, the YPG, experts say.
“A strike might marginally reassure some Kurds made nervous by Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would leave Syria, as it would demonstrate that he’s willing to use force and indicate some limited commitment, but the effect would likely be minimal,” Max Hoffman, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, told HuffPost.
Kurdish leaders “say publicly that they have frequent reassurances from U.S. military commanders, but they know Trump is ambivalent and they know the U.S. history towards Kurdish (and other) proxies, so of course they’re nervous,” he added.
For now, anyone affected by Trump’s decisions ― including Syrians, millions of whom have cheered a strike regardless of the consequences because of their desperation for some accountability for Assad ― would have trouble planning for the long run. U.S. officials say they don’t even know if they can continue civilian reconstruction work intended to help prevent local anger and a resurgence of ISIS.
Washington realized how little the strike would mean before it even took place. And so even the gain Trump perhaps cared most about ― applause ― now seems like a reach.
Tellingly, supporters of last year’s strike ― people like Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the powerful ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee ― have been focusing on the problems with Trump’s leadership rather than with Assad’s culpability as they did last year.
“The President’s erratic tweets referencing Syria have left both our allies and our adversaries confused about his policy. These tweets have also made very clear that the President has no strategy for how to combat Assad’s atrocities against his own people,” Smith said in a Friday statement.
“I am opposed to military action against Assad,” he added. “It is not clear that military action will improve the situation for the Syrian people. It will be insufficient to remove Assad from power, and will only make the situation worse.”