Once again, Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad is accused of using chemical weapons against his own people. Reports from multiple sources detail the attack, which appears incontestable despite Russian denials.
The Trump administration has responded by whiplashing from their stated position that American troops would be withdrawn soon to promising retaliation. Trump told reporters at the White House on April 9 that the U.S. “cannot allow atrocities like that.”
Trump is now promising a “major decision” soon.
Last year at this time, military strikes in response to a Syrian chemical attack had little discernible effect. The targeted airfield was back in operation within 24 hours of the attack. This time, four things are likely to make the situation even more dire.
First, the ineffectiveness of last year’s strikes demands a stronger response now - a classic trap of warfare, which pushes belligerents into ever-increasing escalation.
Second, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to replace former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has a history of belligerence. Also of significance is the new National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has a well-documented preference for military options. That leaves America ever-more militarized, even as support for diplomacy continues to shrink.
Third, increased Russian presence on Syrian soil means increased risk of Russian casualties in any action.
Fourth, in the time since last April’s airstrikes, the U.S. has still failed to produce a diplomatic and development strategy for Syria that would give military action containment and context.
As costly as inaction has been in the seven years since the Arab Spring uprisings first took hold in Syria, history suggests that removing Assad in a hurry or raising the military stakes in absence of a strategy for diplomacy and reconstruction would be an even bigger mistake. In 16 years studying and working with complex conflicts like Syria, I have yet to see an exception to this rule.
We know where this goes next
Targeting Assad would likely give birth to the same kind of catastrophe we saw in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall. In Libya, with no true civil governance to hold the country together, tribal alliances collapsed and a four-way fight for power emerged. It continues even now, accented by a persistent Islamic State presence. The power vacuum that would follow the sudden removal of Assad could be worse than the current warfare, and nourish the already fertile conditions for violent extremist and paramilitary actors.
Assad shouldn’t remain in power. He’s been proving that for seven years. But my experience tells me his removal should be political and legal. That process must come from the Syrians themselves, not from the outside. His departure should be negotiated with Syrian civil society leadership to legitimize the claim to power of a replacement civilian government.
Syrian society is far from whole enough now to provide impartial justice on its own, but it would be a mistake to respond to their crisis by taking more power away from them. Trump is dismissive of nation-building, but that implies large-scale American intervention to design and build systems for the Syrians. Assistance to the Syrians to help them design and build their own systems is an entirely different – and entirely necessary – endeavor. In the meantime, other options such as peacekeeping forces and the International Criminal Court should be considered at least as a placeholder. This won’t heal all ills - but it could prevent some of the predictable regressions.
Nature abhors a vacuum: Unlike in a game of chess, in war removing the king is not the end, but only another beginning. The idea that Syria still exists as it looks on the map is a fantasy. Syria won’t come cleanly back together should Assad disappear overnight. Tensions among rebel groups – which are already high – and between pro- and anti-IS forces will only increase with one leader removed from the field. We can only attempt to predict where Assad’s loyalist forces will go with that leader removed. The Caliphate may be gone, but ISIS remains, as do recruiters for a list of other organizations.
In order for any military action to be beneficial, it needs to come in the context of a sound diplomatic plan to constrain unintended consequences with other actors – like Russia – and a sound locally driven plan to move from immediate containment of violence to a return of civilian Syrian leadership and security. Neither plan currently exists.
What’s the endgame? The classic underpinnings of our own strategic doctrine stress that military action should never be taken without a clear goal for a desired end-state. Retaliatory military strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons may seem necessary. Certainly, the use of these weapons must be prevented and civilian lives protected, but action – let alone an attempt to remove Assad himself – without a plan is an invitation to failure.
Last year’s limited strikes only increased the sense of crisis and confusion, with no appreciable gain. Most worrisome, now as then, it seems clear that Trump himself is driven by caprice rather than a firm grasp on strategy and consequence. In such a chaotic environment, this can only increase the risk of unintended consequences, while offering no advantage.
Whither the ship of State? The U.S. Department of State is more fragile now than it was a year ago. Offices that should manage complex policies and processes remain vacant, and the number of vacancies has increased. In normal times, these offices should provide much-needed analysis about dynamics and changes in conflict zones. They would also help to mitigate the heightened probability of accidental clashes with international actors such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and even Israel in the confusion and increased tension that follows military action.
Unless the United States is willing to commit to a sustained and substantial campaign or to throw its weight behind a political end to the war, any limited military action is an empty gesture. But even a sustained and substantial military campaign may ultimately be an empty gesture, unless it’s predicated on a sound diplomatic agenda. That agenda is the lynchpin - and it doesn’t exist.
There is, however, still time to avoid disaster.
There’s no time like the present for America to create the strategy it has thus far lacked. The U.S. has the experience, talent and resources to create a plan and a strategy – the missing part is the political will to produce it and follow through. Congress can muster the political will to push back on Russia and Iran diplomatically to avert further escalation. The State Department can be empowered to reduce tensions through non-military pressure. Despite its precarious position, it still has enough career officers to make this happen. USAID can provide the tools and material needed to knit Syrian society together again. The urge to rapid action is understandable, but history’s lessons are unavoidable: Acting without a plan or strategy only leads to further chaos.
This article updates one that originally ran on April 9, 2017.