Opinion

What Trump’s attack on Syria did – and did not – do

In this image provided by the White House, President Donald Trump receives a briefing on the Syria military strike from his national security team after the strike, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, April 6, 2017.
In this image provided by the White House, President Donald Trump receives a briefing on the Syria military strike from his national security team after the strike, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, April 6, 2017. AP

President Donald Trump’s sudden missile strike against a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a gas attack on civilians will not change one thing about that sad land’s bloody civil war.

It will, however, alter the strategic calculus in many places within but also far beyond the troubled Middle East. Politically, the missiles also likely blasted any attempted allegations that Trump is a Putin patsy. Watch upcoming job approval polls for the popular verdict.

The 58 $1 million Tomahawk missiles (one fell into the sea) took out Syrian air force planes, reinforced hangars, fuel storage tanks and ammunition dumps. The intended message to Bashar Assad was, you can no longer use chemical weapons with impunity.

As columnist Charles Krauthammer aptly put it, following eight years of relative apathy and inaction after worse war crimes, the message from the new American president was not that there’s a new sheriff in town, but that there IS a sheriff in town.

Trump campaigned against the U.S. military being a global policeman. This single strike doesn’t mean that’s changed. His justification was based on the paramount importance of U.S. national security.

The message from the new American president was not that there’s a new sheriff in town, but that there IS a sheriff in town.

“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States,” Trump said, “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. . . . Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”

It does mean, however, that America’s allies, especially Sunni Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia that were awaiting U.S. leadership, are encouraged. The Saudis have even offered troops to fight ISIS.

It does mean that bad actors such as Syria, Iran, Russia and even loopy North Korea must now factor in Trump’s proven willingness to exercise American clout when he perceives a national security threat.

After the sarin gas attack with photos of babies gasping for air, Trump acted swiftly and decisively. But not, as critics fretted last year, wildly. He could have attacked all six Syrian airfields. He could have ordered Special Forces to simultaneously move in eastern Syria.

Instead, Trump targeted only the specific airfield that launched the gas attack. It was a measured response. No new ground troops. Not even pilots risking capture.

U.S. missiles were programmed to ignore structures storing gas components and barracks housing several hundred Russians. In fact, U.S. officers gave them an hour’s notice to get out of the way, one reason Moscow’s subsequent denunciation was measured.

Even chronic critics like fellow New Yorker Sen. Chuck Schumer found it hard to argue.

It was in striking contrast to President Barack Obama, who on Aug. 20, 2012, said of Syria, “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

In the end, Obama did nothing, blaming congressional inertia.

That was one of several times Obama got himself in trouble when not using a teleprompter. A year later Assad used chemical weapons again, killing more than 1,000. Obama threatened an attack as Secretary of State John Kerry reassured how minor it would be.

Then they allowed Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Assad’s chief backer, to placate them with a plan to allegedly remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. In the end, Obama did nothing, blaming congressional inertia.

Clearly, that Russian guarantee was not honored, a point hammered home by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week: “Either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.” Tillerson’s upcoming scheduled visit to Moscow could prove interesting.

Is this the end of it? Not likely. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad is still winning. He could take the missile lesson. Or he could defy it and risk further attacks, as warned by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Trump’s staff must now include congressional consultations on his thinking.

But Trump’s action has also now become a new certainty that other international troublemakers must include in their assessments of American power.

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm

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