President Trump made the right decision last night in firing a Tomahawk missile barrage against the Assad regime’s Shairat Air Base, from which a nerve gas attack gassing over 70 civilians to death was launched on Tuesday.
In using force rather wasting his breath on diplomatic condemnations Assad would surely ignore (the Syrian government denies it conducted the attack), Trump successfully met a simple but pressing challenge that Assad posed to him.
If Trump’s answer to this question had been “Yes,” there would have been more nerve gas attacks like the one on Tuesday. The airstrikes last night therefore saved countless lives and were the first step toward correcting America’s shamefully lackluster policy toward Assad’s campaign of slaughter.
President Obama was in this position once. In August 2013, the U.S. blamed Assad for shattered Obama’s chemical “red line” by killing some 1400 civilians in massive chemical attacks outside the capital Damascus. But rather than delivering the promised “game changer” and striking Assad with force, Obama struck a deal with Russia that Assad never fully honored. The result: Assad never fully gave up his nerve gas stockpiles, and he felt confident enough to resume launching nerve gas attacks last week.
No doubt, many of the same voices that helped cancel Obama’s 2013 chemical “red line” will soon rise in a chorus of condemnation. Trump should feel safe ignoring them. We’ve already heard their arguments and seen the results of their thinking.
During the 2013 “red line” debate, Obama repeatedly invoked the fact that America was “war-weary” and “should not be the world’s policeman” as grounds for inaction. But “war-weariness” at that time caused a Syrian security vacuum that ISIS was able to fill.
ISIS was able to conquer Mosul in June 2014 because during the six previous months, the group had managed to weather a full-on Syrian rebel uprising and military assault, turn the tide, and seize control of the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS then applied the rapid-raid tactics it had learned in Syria to surge into Mosul.
It should be noted that as the crucial Syria-Iraq border area was falling to ISIS, the main Free Syrian Army general in the area – who later commanded the Pentagon-backed New Syrian Army – pled for needed anti-tank weapons to stop ISIS tactical raids. His pleas went unanswered.
There is a lesson for Trump in this: Inaction in the face of slaughter empowers not only Assad, but every other anti-American actor in the area. This includes Al-Qaeda, which is gaining influence based on its clear message to Syrians that while Assad kills their families, America does not want Assad to fall. It also includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its myriad foreign proxies, who are now more powerful than Assad on the Syrian battlefield.
That is why Trump’s remarks following the airstrikes promised a step in the right direction: “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. ...Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter.”
And in partnership with America’s allies, Trump should begin to consider further steps he could take to solve the overall refugee crisis and the destabilization of the region.
First, Trump should consider grounding the Assad regime air force entirely, which was one of the options on the table for Defense Secretary James Mattis according to some media reports. The continued existence of an Assad fighter fleet is the primary cause of the Syrian refugee crisis; regime airstrikes have left whole neighborhoods of Syria uninhabitable and forced civilians to flee by the hundreds of thousands.
Second, Trump should increase support to moderate anti-Assad forces. Contrary to many claims that it is “too late” for the U.S. to find partners in Syria, southern Syria is now dominated by a coalition of over 20,000 Free Syrian Army fighters called the Southern Front. These fighters are also deeply involved in the ISIS fight and have dealt ISIS massive losses in the Syrian desert recently.
Third, Trump should consider a safe zone in northern Syria. The Assad regime has been starving civilians and forcing them to evacuate en masse into the northern Idlib Province, which is where Tuesday’s chemical attacks occurred. As long as Idlib continues to be under fierce bombardments, whether by conventional or chemical weapons, the Syrian refugee crisis will continue.
Trump has taken the first step toward correcting six years of American inaction in the face of mass slaughter in Syria. If he makes good on his promise to bring an end to the slaughter by forcing a change in Assad’s behavior, then Congress and the American people should give him their full support.
Shlomo Bolts is a policy and advocacy officer with the Syrian American Council is co-founder of Jews for Human Rights in Syria.
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