Missiles & Questions
Terry H. Schwadron
Overnight reports confirmed that President Trump had moved swiftly in sending 59 cruise missiles from two naval destroyers into a Syrian airfield as punishment for an apparent decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons on his own people.
In announcing the strike, the President said, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” Previously, he had said only that news of the use of chemicals was “a disgrace to humanity” that had “crossed many lines” for him, enough to change his hands-off position about Assad and Syria.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” the President said of Assad. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
Immediate reports said aircraft, hardened shelters, fuel and radar were hit; no Russian planes were at the base. None of the President’s explanation included criticism of Russian support for Assad.
Still, there are a zillion questions.
· Objective. What are we after here? A single strike or removal of Assad? Destruction of chemical weapons? You can’t have an effective military strike without a political objective. Up until now, Mr. Trump has made crystal clear that Syria is someone else’s problem. Among other things, American troops in the region now will be facing yet more dangers from a Syrian government that may want to retaliate. Undoubtedly, we will be hearing lots more about how this act distinguished the President from his predecessor, who tried diplomacy to get rid of the weapons.
· Killing babies. Yes, chemical weapons killed civilians, including infants, and yes, it is despicable, and yes, it officially is a war crime. But hasn’t the daily, intensive bombing of civilians, including babies, been despicable? Is it the type of weapon that crosses a line here? I’m trying to understand the policy difference as to why one kind of death is okay and another not. After all, just a week or so ago, it was a U.S. airstrike that killed about hundreds of civilians inside Iraqi territory, and you didn’t hear Word One from the White House. If you are Syrian or Iraqi, you may not appreciate the difference after years of war.
· Refugees. The obvious question is whether the sudden outburst of caring about civilians, including infants, now will extend to recognizing that making refugees out of five million Syrians might be a war crime all on its own. If not, why will Mr. Trump and Nicki Haley at the UN explain why we continue to shun Syrian refugees who are the live targets of an insane Assad regime?
· Russians. It was the Russians who guaranteed the removal of chemical weapons, it was the Russians who have propped up Assad and it was Russians who are directing the Assad military. Even the Russians said its support for Assad was not unconditional, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said he will go to Moscow, which was warned about the strikes, to outline an international effort to oust Assad. That, of course, had been the objective of Obama/Kerry as well, though it went nowhere. But he also said the strike was a singular event, with no new policy for Syria. Which is it?
· What Next? With no Assad, with American intervention, with Russian opposition, who would take control of the government. Isn’t this exactly the questions that the President had asked about Hillary and Libya? Again, a military strike with no political context is asking for trouble. Indeed, wouldn’t one logical read here be to think that the same could be next for North Korea?
· Unintended consequences. What happens after a one-time military strike? How will we know when military action is no longer appropriate or whether we need to involve allies in sending in troops? Where are the consultations with coalition members? Where is the UN? Where is Congress — Republicans talk tough, then stick their heads under their desks when asked to declare war in Syria. There were plenty enough different immediate voices to suggest that Congress wants to get in on this question. And oil prices immediately jumped up.
The strike did away with seeking consensus to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons. Indeed, Assad should be arrested and tried. An international group should go in, identify and destroy any remaining chemical weapons. But to order a strike of more than 50 cruise missiles without a view on the wider situation feels, well, somewhat dangerous. Do we have a Syria policy?
It is part of the missing overall policy statements about what we seek the day after we eventually defeat ISIS, about what we intend to do about Russia’s push in the Middle East, about what can be done to guarantee religious and cultural pluralism in the region.
In other words, this takes brains as well as brawn. Let’s hope that the generals lead the President to see the whole picture.