The Pentagon says Friday night’s missile and bombing strikes on three Syrian targets will “result in a long-term degradation” of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons capability. We hope that’s the case, in spite of the limited scope of the action. The attack was designed to minimize civilian casualties and damage to Russian assets, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was a “one-time shot,” though he and President Trump properly left open the possibility of further action if the regime of Bashar Assad continues to use chemical weapons.
Trump was right to order the strike, and also to focus it on chemical and biological facilities. It is vital that the international prohibition against the use of those horrific agents be upheld; the participation of Britain and France in the operation was important in that respect. At the same time, the president and Mattis clearly sought to minimize the risk of a direct military confrontation with Russia or Iran. That is prudent, but if Russia takes retaliatory action, including in cyberspace, the United States must be ready to respond.
The limited nature of the action was in keeping with Trump’s minimalist approach to Syria, which he reiterated in a televised statement. He spoke of bringing home the some 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country “as other nations step up their contributions,”adding that “no amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East.” That fatalistic view is misguided, as is the president’s chimerical notion that “increased engagement” from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt can prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria if the United States pulls out.
In reality, while some of those countries could make financial contributions, none are capable of working with local forces to stabilize and hold the large stretch of territory now under de facto U.S. control east of the Euphrates River. If U.S. forces depart, the Assad regime or Turkey will move in, at the expense of the Kurds who have fought with the United States to defeat the Islamic State, and Iran will obtain the land corridor it seeks across Syria. The eventual result could be a war between Iran and its proxies and Israel that could devastate Syria, Lebanon and Israel itself.
Trump challenged Russia and Iran on their support for the Assad regime, saying “no nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants and murderous dictators.” But Moscow and Tehran will not be swayed by moral arguments. The United States must use the leverage it has on the ground, by maintaining and, if necessary, further fortifying its position in the country. [The president blocked sanctions against Russia on Monday, after Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced them.] It should work to stabilize eastern Syria under local authorities, including Kurds, while demanding an acceptable political settlement brokered by the United Nations.
Only then, with the departure of the Assad regime, will it be possible to ensure that Syrians do not suffer more atrocities, by chemical weapons or by other means. That is why it was wrong for Trump to call Friday’s operation a “Mission Accomplished.”
Whether the president accepts it or not, the challenge to vital U.S. interests in Syria is far from over.
This editorial was originally published by The Washington Post.