There was an uncanny sense of déjà vu, watching President Donald Trump take the White House podium Friday night to announce a brief but intense tri-national missile strike on some of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons facilities.
“After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”
That was not Mr. Trump’s speech; rather, it is what Barack Obama said on the evening of September 9, 2013, in a speech that bore an uncanny similarity – often paragraph to paragraph – to Mr. Trump’s announcement. They both invoked the horrors of the First World War and the international conventions against weapons of mass destruction, the horrible deaths of children and families in recent chemical attacks by Mr. Assad’s forces, the desire not to engage the United States in a larger war (“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria,” Mr. Trump said), or to assist the rise of terrorist powers in the region.
Mr. Trump’s speech concluded by announcing a series of air attacks, lasting about an hour and assisted by France and Britain, aimed at hampering Mr. Assad’s ability to produce chemical weapons including chlorine gas and the nerve agent sarin.
There it differed from Mr. Obama’s speech, which had ended with a surprise twist: He had decided not to attack Mr. Assad after Russia offered to enter Syria and rid the country of all its chemical weapons stockpiles and assets. That proved to be Mr. Obama’s most serious foreign-policy blunder: it failed to end Mr. Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks – he is believed to have carried out more than 50 of them in the past seven years – and it turned Russia into the major player in the Syrian civil war, which has become a proxy conflict between Moscow and Washington.
Yet Mr. Trump’s announcement contained its own, strikingly similar, surprise twist. It began with thundering denunciations of the failures of Russia and Iran, the two countries that sustain Mr. Assad’s regime – “What kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children,” he asked them.
But he soon made it abundantly clear that he intends to keep Mr. Assad in power, seven years after Syria’s people rose against him and launched this civil war. “The eradication of ISIS” is the sole goal of the U.S mission there, he stressed, identifying the group that calls itself Islamic State. Defence Secretary James Mattis made that even more clear in his press briefing after the strikes: “There were no attempts to broaden or expand that target set,” he tartly explained when asked if killing Mr. Assad had been considered.
So while Mr. Trump’s strikes were several times larger than the ones he launched against a single Syrian air base following a similar chemical-attack horror shortly after his inauguration, there is no sense that they will take care of Syria’s underlying problem.
In fact, there is little sense they will even provide a lasting solution to the problem of Mr. Assad’s awful chemical-weapons attacks.
“These attacks rarely work and I suspect tonight’s also will not, again… It is unlikely tonight’s attacks will deter Assad from ever using CW [chemical weapons] munitions again,” said Micah Zenko, a specialist in targeted military strikes at London’s Chatham House. “Next attack will then need to be even bigger.”
That is the most likely immediate outcome: The United States will find a need for further targeted airstrikes in coming day and months, possibly in response to more atrocities, but also will quietly seek to keep Mr. Assad in power and avoid provoking Russia more than it has.
The Syrian conflict is increasingly being portrayed by Mr. Trump and by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a conflict between Russia and the United States. In many ways it already is: During one battle in February, as many as 300 Russian soldiers were reported killed by U.S.-led coalition forces. The Russian media portrayed Friday night’s raid as a direct attack on Russia, after having repeated Moscow officials’ claims that the chemical attacks were the work of British agents.
The only lasting way to deal with the triple threat of Syria’s chemical-attack horrors, its deep ties to Iran and its role as a Russian outpost in the Middle East would be to do what no U.S. president has dared contemplate: Help the Syrian people reach a victory in their civil war. That would entail a sustained, deep military commitment by U.S.-backed allies and probably the United States itself, in a conflict that could resemble the Iraq war with the added ingredient of direct military conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers.
In this, Donald Trump’s response to Mr. Assad is nearly identical to Barack Obama’s. They have both chosen to take limited, face-saving action in Syria, to avoid a career-defining war, and thus to hand most responsibility for Mr. Assad’s behaviour to Russia.