April 7th, 2017

Choices in Syria and the world: crossing lines, red and otherwise

After the Syrian gas attack, President Trump had a choice: do nothing or do something. It’s a choice all presidents face, because sooner or later they will be tested—usually sooner, and not just once but many times and in many ways in many places.

When faced with similar circumstances in Syria, Obama declared the existence of a red line and then ignored it. This is one of the worst response/nonresponses possible. It indicates indecision and lack of resolve, a president who talks tough but his threats means nothing and can be safely ignored.

Trump’s reaction was, if not the opposite, something like the opposite. After sending out some signals that he was going to be less interventionist about Assad’s regime in general, he acted more boldly when challenged. His actions—speaking louder than words—would be par for the course for most presidents in a similar situation. They only seem unusual at this point because we’ve grown accustomed to Obama’s post-bluster inaction.

Assad may have calculated that nothing whatsoever would happen, not just because of recent comments by the Trump administration but because of recent history:

Dr. Monzer Khalil, Idlib Province’s health director, said such extreme tactics aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes.

“It makes us feel that we are defeated,” said Dr. Khalil, whose gums bled after he was exposed to scores of chemical victims on Tuesday. “The international community will stay gazing at what’s happening — and observing the explosive barrels falling and rockets bombing the civilians and the hospitals and the civil defense and killing children and medical staff — without doing anything.”

“Militarily, there is no need,” said Bente Scheller, the Middle East director of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation. “But it spreads the message: You are at our mercy. Don’t ask for international law. You see, it doesn’t protect even a child.”…

By showing it puts no limits on the tactics it uses, Mr. Yazigi [an opposition Syrian economist] wrote, “the regime shows to the world the West’s impotence and weakness.”

“The West’s impotence and weakness” started even before Obama. We may not like being the world’s policeman (Trump has certainly made many statements to that effect). But if not us, then who? And if no one is the world’s policeman, what then?

That’s the dilemma in a nutshell. It’s the same dilemma that led to the rise of the foreign-interventionist group of neocons who have been so reviled in recent years. But the dilemma remains.

Liberal Democrats used to be more inclined to applaud such interventions, as well. But in recent years they’ve adopted a simple way of reacting that goes like this: anything a Democrat does is good whether it be isolationist or interventionist, and anything a Republican does is bad.

Nor is it the case that Trump’s action in bombing the Syrian air base will heavily undermine Assad’s power. That would take a lot more—something like the Iraq War, which I am virtually certain is not in the cards. But Trump’s action does send a message that a new policeman is in town—and that now there are indeed limits and red lines, and costs for crossing them. And that is worth something.

[NOTE: Some of Trump’s alt-right supporters don’t like this move:

President Trump’s surprise decision to launch 59 missiles at a Syrian airfield, and his call for “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” angered some of his staunchest supporters — paleo-conservatives, noninterventionist libertarians and the self-identified members of the “alt-right” nationalist movement.]

30 Responses to “Choices in Syria and the world: crossing lines, red and otherwise”

  1. Cornhead Says:

    I am so, so impressed with how this was handled. It was handled in a professional and business like way.

    The President learns what happened. Confirmed it was Assad who did it. Options requested from Defense. Mattis has options and plans on the books. POTUS asks questions. POTUS then selects the best option and immediately acts. Military executes flawlessly.

    POTUS gives short speech. States that it is in our national interest to see that no country uses chemical weapons. This is true as we have troops in the area.

    Tillerson and Halley point out how Russia either lied or was was incompetent about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons.

    Now think of how a President Hillary would have handled the same thing; that is if she could be awakened to bother with this.

    Also note the massive failure of the Obama Administration in Syria. Heck of a job, Susan!

    What a great team we have now.

  2. Vanderleun Says:

    As somebody said this morning, “The message was ‘You had five airbases. Now you have four. Want to try for three?’ “

  3. expat Says:

    Cornhead,

    I agree.

    Vanderleun,

    I’m amazed that pundits aren’t talking more about how this weakens Assad. In strong-man territory, every loss of power is important.

  4. John Guilfoyle Says:

    And…we lost not a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. There was no pontificating. No posturing. And my guess is those empty missile launchers are reloaded and ready to go again.

    This is what leadership looks like. Not that panty-waist crap of the last 8 years.

  5. Griffin Says:

    The world never goes according to campaign promises. GWB and Gore never would have imagined the world they would be dealing with when the 2000 election was going on. All a candidate can do is state their opinions and basic philosophy and then be flexible. Consistency sounds great and all but in this complex world it is a pipe dream.

  6. Sharon W Says:

    Neo–“But in recent years they’ve adopted a simple way of reacting that goes like this: anything a Democrat does is good whether it be isolationist or interventionist, and anything a Republican does is bad.” So true!

    Cornhead–great synopsis.

  7. Kyndyll G Says:

    My issue with this is that there are no good guys or truth-tellers in this conflict. I don’t know how sure we can be about the truth in this matter. Assad is dealing with Sunni Islamists – some of whom are the kind of barbaric subhumans who burn people alive in cages and pull Muslim truck drivers over in Shi’ite areas and execute them for not knowing Sunni prayers. Does that excuse the use of chemical weapons? No. But I still think that the “rebels” (I hate to use that word because it tends to confer a patina of “good guy” status on them) are more likely to use chemical weapons. Because of the widespread presumption that Assad has to be guilty if chemical weapons are used, Assad’s enemies have everything to gain and little to lose, whereas I don’t see much logical upside for Assad to use chemical weapons.

    That said, if, indeed Assad is the guilty party this was a textbook illustration on how to handle it.

  8. London Trader Says:

    On the Democrat response to things like this, I note that Marie Harf was supportive of Trump’s move on Fox last night.

  9. parker Says:

    Vanderleun,

    He should order the pentagon to take out another airfield next week, and send a commincation to Assad that basically says can you hear me now or must I give you another ruined airfield?

    Kyndyll G,

    I agree that a ‘good’ regime will not replace the Assad regime should he fall. The mess team obama created in Libya is a prime example. As you mention, this was the best way to give Assad are hard smack down.

  10. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    I too strongly approve of how Trump handled this issue.

    However taking out Assad is highly problematic with a definite possibility that the successor regime would be even worse. It would be a toss-up between another Iranian proxy, in which case the Sunni majority continues to rebel or a new Sunni Theological State. There is zero chance of a democratic, pluralistic State arising.

    Given the nature of the combatants there is no good solution and trying to act in anything beyond a minimal humanitarian fashion will prove to be another case of “the cure being worse than the disease”.

  11. Brian E Says:

    The real risk of this is Assad will launch another sarin gas attack (accepting it was his regime in the first place) and dare the US to respond.

    It could get dangerous real fast. Hopefully Russia will exert a little more control over Assad.

    The strike on the air base, which apparently didn’t target the runways, cost 59 tomahawks X $1.54 million = $90 million.

  12. CV Says:

    A liberal friend of mine asked me today what I thought about the Trump air strikes. I replied that I thought that limited air strikes are different from full-out war, and that I supported these strikes because there have to be consequences when a dictator/regime uses chemical weapons on their own innocent citizens.

    And she agreed with me. She said she had seen those heartbreaking images of the victims of the sarin attack, such as the young father who lost his wife and twin toddlers, and that she was glad that Trump took a strong stand and ordered the strikes.

    I also wonder what this does to the Trump and Putin narrative. Seems like a powerful message sent to Russia/Syria.

  13. Frog Says:

    Medically speaking, I am concerned their is actually very little evidence known to me (since I’m not in the DOD or Intelligence loops, but confined to media info) that this was in fact a sarin gassing. Photos of kids with oxygen masks pressed over their mouths can be just as easily staged as the Palestinians did with kids “murdered” by Israelis.
    There are no good guys in Syria, right?
    Exposure to sarin does not cause diagnostic stigmata.
    Turkey is said to have autopsied three gas victims, concluding the autopsy findings were indicative of sarin.

    But there are no findings at death that would be diagnostic of anti-cholinesterase poisoning. None.

    Japanese pathologists after the Tokyo sarin release in the 1990s concluded, “Postmortem examinations revealed no macroscopic and microscopic findings specific to sarin poisoning, and sarin and its hydrolysis products were almost undetectable in their blood.”

    This may have been a total charade. I say, may have been, because there is room for doubt both medically and as to the honesty/ motives of those making the gassing allegations. Plus, the question of why Assad would do this now, when he’s winning against those who want him dead.

    Trump is the clear winner in this. It shuts the Dems and MSM up, it “only” cost ~$300 million, and lost no US lives.
    It may shut down the incessant bitching about Trump and Russia.

  14. J.J. Says:

    Syria is a much easier foe than ISIS or al Qaeda. They have the assets of a normal country. An army and air force with bases, storage depots, etc. It is much easier to do real damage to their ability to fight.

    As General Jack Keane has pointed out, we could take out all their air bases in one night, if we choose. Let us hope Assad and the Russians don’t feel like pushing the envelope. If they do, taking out the bases and more may be necessary.

    I agree with all commenters who have pointed out the dangers of Assad actually falling. The follow on regime, if there is one, would be just as bad or maybe worse. Unless, of course, we could install our own despot. 🙂 No government at all, ala Libya, would be the worst outcome.

    Trying to rule a country like Syria with all its various tribal/religious groups requires a dictator. One solution that has been suggested is breaking Syria up into a Sunni East, Kurd North, and Alawite/Shia West. And who is going to broker that deal?

    At least Trump has shown he can be decisive. I’m sure he’s getting good military advice from Mattis and McMaster. This issue requires military, diplomatic, economic, and political skill at the highest level. I’m hoping that Trump and his team are up to the task.

  15. Big Maq Says:

    So, what is our country’s role in the world?

    Is it just me, or has trump done an about face?

    “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval”
    https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/373146637184401408

    “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day!”
    https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/376334423069032448

    “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!”
    https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/373581528405905408
    .

    Despite his contradictions, this was an “easy” thing to do.

    The hard part is moving this towards some kind of stabilization, in terms favorable to us and our allies.

    Does trump have the foresight, understanding and strategic acumen to shepherd it? Does he have the interest?

    Or, is this a one-off to look “tough”, send a message (even beyond Syria), and to change the news cycle topic?
    .

    After all, the “humanitarian” argument cannot be based on chemical weapons use alone, as other weapons can be just as deadly and harmful, applied in the right numbers (as they have been).

  16. parker Says:

    Big Maq,

    This was contrary to campaign rhetoric. Well big surprise? What would you have Trump do? Say golly gee whiz Assad is a bad, sad guy, but my hands are tied by campaign rhetoric?

    It does not work that way. Campaigning for POTUS is not the same as being POTUS. Trump has learned this in less than 60 days. GWB needed 200 plus. Truman less than 90. Obama never.

    I am not a lap dog fan of djt by a country mile. I am positive that he will continue to give me reasons to disagree and criticize. When I think he has made a correct decision I will say so. You may differ and that is your privilege, but in the real world there are no safe spaces.

  17. The Other Chuck Says:

    Frog:
    Exposure to sarin does not cause diagnostic stigmata.
    Turkey is said to have autopsied three gas victims, concluding the autopsy findings were indicative of sarin.

    The most common toxic gas precursor which is also easily available because it is used in pesticides, is carbonyl chloride – phosgene. If it wasn’t sarin as you indicate it may not have been, then that would be a good guess, and the one that Savage believes because of the images of choking children.
    What do you think?

  18. J.J. Says:

    I decided to do a bit of research into Syria’s history post 1918. It didn’t encourage me. This place has been a cesspool of political and religious unrest since 1918. The Assad regime (father and son) brought them stability (via the iron fist of the Baathist Party) of sorts from 1970 to 2011. The protests against Assad were against both his dictatorial ways and his Alawite (sect of Shia Islam) religion. Religion is always an issue in the Muslim world, isn’t it?

    A map of the present situation in Syria shows five basic combatants, though there are subsets of those – The Syrian government, the Syrian opposition (Free Syrian Army, Southern Front, Jaysh al-Islam, and Islamic Front), The Kurdish SDF, ISIL, and al Nusra Front (al Qaeda).

    From Wiki: “As of January 2017: the government held 34% of Syria (65.5% of the population); ISIL-held territory constituted 33% of Syria (9.5% of the population); 20% controlled by the SDF (12.5% of the population); 13% held by rebel groups (Syrian opposition and others including the al-Nusra front; 12.5% of the population).”

    It appears that the rebel groups are the ones getting hit the hardest by Assad’s forces. Although they probably occasionally attack the Kurdish SDF and ISIL. Without Russia and Iran helping him he would probably be toast. But then who would run this fractious wreck of a country?

    For some interesting reading about the situation on the ground (as of January 2017) click on this:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Civil_War

    Wiki may not be all correct, but it gives a good idea of how complex the situation is. I assume McMaster and Mattis both know this. Requires the wisdom of Solomon to know how to navigate this minefield.

  19. Big Maq Says:

    @parker – Golly gee whiz – trump’s been lying to us.

    You make a huge assumption that trump has “learned something”.

    I doubt it very much.

    What seems important is that he have some coherent strategy on Syria, and, more broadly, on the ME.

    Does he have one, or is it a one-off for the reasons stated?

    Maybe it is his (seemingly very good) cabinet that is picking one for him, and this is their first step, but will he abide by that or change on a whim?

  20. AesopFan Says:

    Here’s a note of approval from the American Greatness blog:
    https://amgreatness.com/2017/04/07/wars-rumors-wars/

  21. AesopFan Says:

    Some maps, and Fireworks for the Real Neo-Cons in the audience.
    http://libertyunyielding.com/2017/04/07/cruise-missile-strike-syria-assad-regime-russia-notice/

  22. AesopFan Says:

    http://libertyunyielding.com/2017/04/07/cruise-missile-strike-syria-assad-regime-russia-notice/

    “I’m not pro-war, so this military action alarms me the same way it alarms most people. But objectively speaking, the risk-reward ratio for this attack on Syria’s air field was exceptionally good. You rarely see so many benefits arise from one limited military action.”

    From a commenter there:

    DeadBeatM Jack Lewis • 11 hours ago
    “No argument that Trump was persuaded by common perception rather than facts. This is the world Trump plays in, and he knows it.

    So rather than agonize over the facts (which still don’t matter) and the possibility that he was played, he recognized the direction of public perception, and got in front of it. He made his move quickly and decisively, not just in responding to Syria, but in taking control of public perception and turning the situation to his advantage.”

  23. AesopFan Says:

    Some very interesting information (but not news-news) if true:
    http://www.weeklystandard.com/obama-administration-knew-syria-still-had-chemical-weapons-despite-saying-otherwise/article/2007595

    “In Congressional testimony last February, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged “gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration,” validating reports that Syria was still hiding banned chemicals at undisclosed locations. And on its way out the door in January of this year, the Obama Treasury quietly introduced new sanctions against Syrian officials involved in chemical warfare. Buried in the language sanctioning a particular official was a telling admission: “As of 2016, Abbas has continued operating at locations in Syria associated with chemical warfare-related missions.”

    Whether or not the Obama Administration knew of this particular sarin facility, then, they clearly knew that Syrians were still clinging to their stockpiles at several locations. They knew what Adam Garfinkle has been saying allalong: that Obama’s deal to remove chemical weapons was not a historic diplomatic triumph but an unenforcable sham that the Syrians and Russians never intended to comply with.”

  24. Frog Says:

    To The Other Chuck;
    Sarin is one of a class of neurotxins with similar action, being cholinesterase inhibitors, which paralyze all striated (voluntary) muscle, including those of respiration and swallowing.

    Phosgene is quite unrelated chemically. It is a pulmonary irritant, so it causes pathologically detectable changes in the lungs, which sarin and its cousins do not.
    Phosgene is an old CW agent, used in WWI, along with nitrogen mustard, which caused similar lung damage and death by gradual (hours to days) asphyxiation.

    Sarin et al. cause respiratory arrest, a very rapid death. It leaves no chemical footprint sufficiently long-lived for a determination it was causative. If one ceases to breathe, and dies in 5 minutes, there is nothing an autopsy can show as to cause of death.

    Hope this helps.

  25. The Other Chuck Says:

    Frog: Thanks for the very clear explanation.

  26. Steve D Says:

    ‘But if not us, then who? And if no one is the world’s policeman, what then?’

    These are loaded and biased questions which essentially assume the answer the writer wants.

    But: 1) nobody and 2) What sort of question is this. Nobody can predict the future so this question is unanswerable.

  27. neo-neocon Says:

    Steve D:

    No, they are not loaded and biased questions that assume any answers at all. You should know better.

    I am actually interested in people’s answers. And those questions are philosophical ones. They also take an ancient form, if you are aware of this.

    I don’t know the answers myself, actually. But I think those are important questions that I asked.

  28. Ryan Says:

    someday America will not be the strongest, someday the weak America will be in trouble, and then you would hope the currently strongest nation by then (China may be) would come to America’s aid. That is why you help people when you are strong, you hand people favor to set up an good example on how a leader should act, so someday when you are not the leader and you in trouble, the new leader will act as you did and those who had received your help would come to return the favor. Morality can be explained without the religion context.

  29. liberty wolf Says:

    I also approve of the airstrike for all the reasons you mention Neo and — I think it shows that Trump is capable of decisive action — once he has looked at options presented by his very capable military advisers. It instills confidence, yet I do feel concerned about us getting bogged down in a battle against Assad or — god forbid — the Russians.

    I do think that it would be NICE if we didn’t have to be the “world’s policeman” and we should tread carefully and choose our battles well and strategically. Even so, we can’t shrink America down to the size of Togo or even to the size of Canada on the world stage. We are the largest economic and military power the world has ever seen, at least in the modern era — and are powers are more vast than any in ancient times. The world looks to us for direction and sometimes protection. Rivals will always be looking for a way to get one-up or to take on more influence in our absence. They are not always good actors. So, we kind of have no choice. While Trump may still believe in “America First” – which I tend to agree with in this time of globalization and universalism — he also came face to face with that reality. He did the right thing but I am hoping it doesn’t get crazy after this.

  30. Big Maq Says:

    “I do think that it would be NICE if we didn’t have to be the “world’s policeman” and we should tread carefully and choose our battles well and strategically. Even so, we can’t shrink America down to the size of Togo or even to the size of Canada on the world stage.”

    Well said.

    “While Trump may still believe in “America First” … he also came face to face with that reality”

    trump harped on how the rest of the world was essentially “free riding” on America’s back, but as you acknowledge, reality is more complicated.

    Did trump “learn something” is another question, entirely.

    Since his underlying “philosophy” is a mystery still, and he seems very much a man who just “reacts”, I’m doubtful.

    So you are right to wonder if he doesn’t get into something crazy.

    We are all betting heavily that his cabinet will hold sway when push comes to shove. THEY must know better than we who they are dealing with.
    .

    I know a few who voted for trump largely BECAUSE they thought clinton a “warmonger” and trump preached a hands off message (though there was plenty to point in the other direction if they cared to look).

    Wonder how they feel now, with a floatilla on it’s way to S Korea?

    NM… I know, and it ain’t good.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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