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The airstrikes conducted by the United States, Britain, and France on Saturday against Syrian military targets were about upholding a nearly century-old prohibition against chemical warfare, not about Syria’s seven year-long war that has killed more than half a million people. Indeed, the limited coalition airstrikes are a clear reflection of President Donald J. Trump’s extremely circumscribed objectives.
In explaining the rationale for Saturday morning’s strikes, Trump clearly explained that it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons that had precipitated a U.S. military response, as had been the case just one year ago. Trump identified “the purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.”
Trump’s move to separate chemical weapons usage as a vital U.S. interest, above and separate from the Syrian conflict, represents remarkable continuity in approach with his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Both Obama and Trump contemplated military force because of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, not his indiscriminate slaughter of his countrymen or any other American geostrategic objective in Syria. Both presidents similarly identified defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s caliphate as a vital U.S. interests worth risking American lives for. The only difference between the two presidents is that Obama ultimately backed down after nearly striking Syria for chemical weapons usage, whereas Trump executed such strikes twice.
Yet when it comes to Syria more broadly, both presidents agree: Syria is not America’s fight. Trump was clear in his Friday night address to the nation that in Syria the United States seeks to protect the American people, and that means liberating territory once controlled by the Islamic State, not liberating territory controlled by Assad or removing the Syrian leader.
In explaining his approach to Syria on Friday night, Trump also indicated something more fundamental about his outlook: the Middle East’s problems, including Syria, are not America’s to fix. “The United States will be a partner and a friend,” Trump said, “but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.” Partner and friend, but not leader.
Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, on Sunday articulated the Administration’s conditions for withdrawing American troops from Syria, saying it could only happen after three goals had been accomplished: defeating Islamic State militants, ensuring chemical weapons will not be used, and maintaining the ability to watch Iran. Note: while specifying the concern over future chemical weapons usage, not one of those goals specified by Haley relates either to the ongoing war in Syria, or towards ending it, with or without Assad.
Given that the Western strikes in Syria Saturday morning were about chemical weapons and nothing more, it is no surprise that Syria’s President Assad was reported to be in a good mood on Sunday following the attacks. And why not? Assad now has further reason to feel confident that the United States will not work to topple his regime.
President Trump has stated his preference to extricate America from the Syrian quagmire. Only images of Syrians killed by chemical weapons seem to arouse Trump’s willingness to put Americans in harm’s way in Syria. Assad knows that Syria’s further use of chemical weapons may, but not necessarily will, precipitate additional U.S. airstrikes.
But for the Syrian president, that may be a highly beneficial tradeoff. The Syrian army’s recent use of chemical weapons seems to have been decisive in breaking the rebels’ will in Douma—the last remaining opposition holdout in the area of Eastern Ghouta, a strategic location near Damascus. Assad and his army probably see that military gain far outweighing the costs associated with Saturday’s coalition strikes.
Sure, Assad may now think twice before using chemical weapons again. But at another decisive moment in a future battle, he may again calculate that an American reprisal is a price worth paying if chemical weapons allow him to gain further control over vital Syrian territory.
One of the more interesting aspects to the most recent chemical weapons episode is the fact that Trump clearly and forcefully fingered both Iran and Russia for its support for Assad, essentially shaming them for associating their countries with “mass murder.” Yet by painstakingly avoiding striking their personnel in Syria, and by stating a desire for improved relations with Moscow and possibly Tehran, Trump demonstrated his desire to leave open diplomatic channels to both Russia and Iran.
Those searching or expecting a more comprehensive Syria strategy from the Trump administration should stop looking. Trump, like Obama, wants out of the Middle East, including Syria. American allies looking for something more adventurous in Syria can expect to find a sympathetic ear in Washington and access to U.S. weapons.
But the United States is not going to lead any heroic redemptive efforts, let alone any idealistic fights. Yet as he seeks to narrowly define U.S. interests in Syria to the use of chemical weapons and the defeat of the Islamic State, Trump may soon discover, as did his predecessor, that the “troubled” Middle East has a way of changing, if not thwarting, outsiders’ policy agendas.