In the wake of the United States’ cruise missile strikes against Al Sharyat airfield in Syria this Friday, one key question remains unanswered: Were these strikes simply a “one-off” response to the Assad regime’s gassing of civilians earlier this week, as President Trump implied in a speech that focused on the gas attack as the motive for his decision? Or do they represent the first steps in a larger effort to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested? Hopefully, the first answer is the correct one. The United States should not use force to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war, as horrible as that war may be. The risks of quagmire and great-power conflict with Russia are too high. But the United States should commit to respond with force to any further chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against civilians. While this policy would carry significant risks, it would also bring significant benefits — to the United States, to the civilized world, and most of all to the people of Syria. Those benefits would outweigh the risks associated with adopting such a policy.
Any further chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime against civilians should be met as this one was: With a military response aimed at degrading the Syrian air force’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. The United States should use stand-off weapons like cruise missiles to hit Syrian airbases without risking American lives. If Assad persists in using chemical weapons against his own people, the scale of the United States’ responses should increase accordingly. This policy would deter Assad from using chemical weapons, and while it would not stop him from continuing to kill his own people by other means, it would spare Syrian civilians from being the victims of one class particularly cruel and destructive weapons. More than a thousand civilians were killed in a single chemical attack in Syria in 2013; in the Iran-Iraq war, chemical weapons attacks killed thousands of civilians on multiple occasions. These are far more civilians than are killed in one of the Assad regime’s typical airstrikes. Stopping Assad from using chemical weapons would save lives, and would reinforce the international norm against using these awful weapons.
Adopting this policy would also strengthen the United States’ hand in international politics, in Syria and elsewhere. John Kerry’s previous attempts to broker an end to Syria’s civil war went nowhere: With President Obama having publicly backed away from a threat to forcefully intervene in the conflict, Kerry had almost no leverage over Assad and his Russian backers, and was essentially reduced to asking Russia and Assad to play nice — an experience that one member of Kerry’s negotiating team, writing recently in the Atlantic, called “degrading.” But now that Trump has proven willing to use force, Putin and Assad might be more willing to listen. The United States shouldn’t actually use force to influence a political settlement in Syria — but we should make Putin and Assad believe that we might, a negotiating tactic that would be more convincing if Trump makes it a policy to retaliate with force for any chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. Granted, Putin might see through this bluff and refuse to budge, doubting that the United States would escalate and knowing that he could match us if we did. But then we would just be back where we started, nothing lost and nothing gained.
A show of force in Syria would also strengthen the United States’ position in upcoming negotiations with China over the North Korea problem. If Trump proved that he were willing to use force to deal with bad actors, China might become more willing to pressure the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program, for fear of the United States getting involved.
So: Resolving to forcefully retaliate for any future chemical weapons attacks would carry three benefits. It would alleviate (if marginally) the suffering of the Syrian people; it would strengthen the international norm against using chemical weapons; and it would give the United States added leverage to deal with Syria and North Korea (and Iran and Russia, if we ended up in a dispute with one or both of those countries). However, this policy would obviously carry major risks, the first of which is that it wouldn’t work: Assad uses chemical weapons, we bomb him, he continues to use chemical weapons, we continue to bomb him, and our involvement in Syria escalates without producing any results. The fact that Syrian jets resumed missions out of Al Sharyat airbase a day after the United States hit it with 50 cruise missiles makes this a possibility worth considering: Our strike doesn’t appear to have hurt them very much. Yet I still tend to doubt this possibility. I might be wrong, but I’m inclined believe that the U.S. military can inflict enough pain on Assad to make him stop using chemical weapons, especially seeing as he was winning the war without them anyways. If he does continue using them, we can continue bombing him, which would still send a strong message. In such a situation, Assad might also come under pressure from the Russians to cease chemical weapons attacks. Faced with a stalemate between Assad and the United States, with Assad continuing to use chemical weapons and the United States continuing to retaliate, Russia would face three choices: Retaliate against the United States, sit back and let a client state get bombarded by American cruise missiles, or force Assad to stop using chemical weapons. The easiest choice for Russia would be the last one: It’s not a good look to abandon a client state to face the U.S. military alone.
But what about Option 1: retaliate against the United States? Confrontation with Russia would be the biggest risk of continuing to punish Assad for future chemical weapons attacks. But if you aren’t willing to take any risks, you’re going to lose geopolitically to people who are, and the risk of escalation with Russia is a risk worth taking, given that the Russians would likely take the easy off-ramp of forcing Assad to stop using chemical weapons. Russia said four years ago that they had forced Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It now appears they were lying, or at least weren’t leaning on Assad particularly hard to surrender his chemical weapons. If the United States escalated against Assad, Russia would only have to make good on that previous pledge in order to avoid a standoff. They wouldn’t lose face: They would only be following through on a pledge they made four years ago. Russia doesn’t want a direct confrontation with the United States, and forcing Assad to give up his chemical weapons would be an easy way to avoid one.
Mission creep would prevent another serious risk. Hypothetically, this would be easy to avoid: The United States would attack Syria if they used chemical weapons, and not if they didn’t. Admittedly, Trump doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to limit himself, but this is a fairly clear line to draw, and one that would bring grave risks if crossed — something that Mattis, McMaster, and the other adults in the room would understand. Were the United States to exceed its policy of retaliating for chemical weapons strikes, Russia would feel compelled to respond, and there’s no telling how that would end. With a clearly-defined mission, and any action beyond the bounds of that mission carrying a serious risk of great-power confrontation, mission creep could be avoided. And if the United States continued to rely on stand-off weapons like cruise missiles, which can be used without risking American lives, the chance that an American casualty would drag us further into the war would be minimized.
Attacking Assad could affect the battle against ISIS: News reports suggested that the jihadist group had stepped up an assault near the airbase that the United States struck, and if American strikes weakened Assad significantly, ISIS could fill the vacuum. But ideally, American strikes wouldn’t have to significantly weaken Assad — they would only deter him from using chemical weapons. And with ISIS currently fighting a massive and losing battle in Mosul, they might not be well positioned to capitalize on Assad’s losses. More significantly, American strikes against Assad could lead his government to turn the Syrian military’s sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses against American planes carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Syrian territory. But Assad benefits from American strikes against ISIS, so again, his best option would be to stop using chemical weapons, avoid further American strikes against his government, and let the United States continue to carry out airstrikes against ISIS on Syrian territory.
All these various possibilities could interact in any number of unpredictable ways. But few possibilities are catastrophic for the United States or Syrian civilians. The one truly grave risk — escalation with Russia — is a risk worth taking, because Russia would feel immense pressure to take the easy off-ramp of forcing Assad to stop using his chemical weapons. Committing to retaliate for any future chemical attacks against civilians is a risky policy, but it is a risk worth taking. While there is ample precedent for a President acting unilaterally in a situation like this, Congress should vote now to authorize future strikes as necessary, so as to establish Congressional control over volatile situation and a hotheaded President.