Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad’s April 4 Sarin gas attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun drew a quick response from President Trump. U.S. naval forces rained down 59 cruise missiles on Shayrat air base, destroying or damaging 23 Syrian planes. Many Republicans—far-right conservatives were opposed—Democrats and allied governments found the action intoxicating. It’s time to sober up.
I neither support nor condemn Mr. Trump’s decision. But I caution that the matter is far from simple—and far from over. Mr. Trump’s response certainly stands in contrast to Barack Obama’s setting a red line regarding chemical attacks, looking to Congress for approval to take military action, finding none then accepting an offer by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to negotiate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Some of which apparently were held back.
Mr. Obama’s mistake was not withholding American force, which may or may not have accomplished much while possibly igniting a political firestorm at home. It was declaring a red line publicly rather than privately notifying Assad, Putin and Iran that using chemical weapons could provoke a U.S. military response.
Mr. Trump chose to make a “statement.” Despite the initial chest-thumping, it likely will prove meaningless. After our cruise missile delivery, several of Assad’s planes took off from Shayrat—whose runways were left untouched—to again bomb Khan Sheikhoun. Assad made his own statement. While feeble, it was backed by Russia’s military presence in Syria.
Frederic C. Hof, a Syria policy maven at the State Department under Mr. Obama, who later became an Obama administration critic, stated that Assad “now counts on the West again to leave him free to kill as long as he does so without chemicals” (The New York Times, 4-9-17). The Pentagon later suggested that barrel bombs may cross another “line.” So what?
Take Mr. Trump’s mention that “many lines had been crossed” by Assad’s latest chemical attack. Apparently, no lines were crossed when Mr. Trump assumed the presidency ten weeks earlier. Syrian helicopters continued dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Syrian and Russian artillery, mortars and conventional bombs maintained the slaughter. The mass killing of civilians seemingly crossed no lines for Mr. Obama, as well. The Syrian death toll reportedly stands at or near 500,000.
Are we going to war? Despite the brutality, many Americans, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, exhibit no desire for the U.S. to get deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, particularly given the risk of a miscalculation with Russian forces. This represents not cynicism but pragmatism (see Iraq: Invasion of).
Referencing Frederic Hof, is it wrong to kill 87 civilians with Sarin gas but okay to kill 150 with run-of-the-mill ordnance? If half-a-million deaths doesn’t cross a line spurring concerted United Nations action—impossible with a Russian veto—is a line demarcated at 600,000 deaths? A million?
I’ve written that violence in the Middle East will continue for years and probably decades until the people of the region—not America—have had enough or totally exhausted themselves. While that position jeers at our humanitarian values, it remains valid lacking a truly global will to intervene and the ability to restore not only order to the Middle East but also civility. Honesty, no matter how gut-wrenching, will guide us more wisely than political showmanship.
Check out the first two chapters of my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht on this website. I’ll host a celebration on Sunday, April 30, selling and autographing softcover books. Can’t attend? Contact me or go to Amazon for a copy in softcover or digital format.
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