After images of yet another grisly chemical attack on Syrian civilians over the weekend, President Donald Trump fumed that Syria and its allies, Iran and Russia, would pay a “big price” for the atrocity.
By Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that no response would be ruled out, but that his primary responsibility was to work “with allies and partners” to figure out how to approach the situation. Trump told reporters on Monday morning that he will make a decision on how to move forward in the next 48 hours.
The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency session on Monday night to figure out what to do about the “alleged attack.” Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has already blamed the opposition for fabricating the attack, calling the images of dozens of dead children a “hoax” and is sure to use its veto power.
“Russia’s serial vetoes of resolutions on Syria have left the UN Security Council effectively impotent,” said Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, in response to ThinkProgress’s request for comment. “If the Council remains deadlocked, Secretary-General Guterres should step in on his own authority and immediately appoint investigators to identify the perpetrators behind chemical attacks in Syria, including the attack this past weekend.”
While the U.S. and the U.N. try to figure out what, if anything, they can do, there are reports of an early morning Israeli airstrike that hit an airbase in central Syria, killing 14 people, including Iranians. Israel has struck inside Syria over 100 times since 2012, targeting mostly Iranian or Hezbollah convoys — threatening to make the conflict even worse.
“Does Iran retaliate against Israel?… This increases the risk of the conflict becoming a broader regional conflict that pulls in more states,” said Reed M. Wood, an associate professor specializing in conflict at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “That’s terribly concerning. If Iran and Israel exchange blows or Israel becomes more involves in Syria, then you could see a conflict that spirals out and produces even more casualties than we’ve observed to date.”
While he thinks the odds of this are not high, Wood also added that Israel has been “operating much more freely with Trump in the White House.”
U.S. policy on Syria has always lacked clarity. When former President Barack Obama sent troops into the conflict in 2014, many thought he’d hesitated too long and was getting the United States mired in yet another conflict without a clear mission.
Under President Donald Trump, things have become all the more convoluted.
“It’s hard to discern a strategy from the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to international politics… There seem to be a lot of questions about whether he’s playing some sort of multidimensional chess or if he’s just winging it. I would tend to think that the latter is more realistic,” said Wood.
Apparently moved by the images of Syrian children killed in a chemical attack in Idlib’s Khan Sheikhoun last spring, the president ordered a strike on an airbase — 59 Tomahawk missiles hit the base almost one year ago, on April 7, 2017.
“What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes, and it shouldn’t have happened. And it shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” the president said at the time. The nearly $100 million worth of missiles that hit the Shayrat base in Homs. By April 9, the airbase was operational again.
“The U.S. posture has not been effective,” said Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and whose views do not reflect those of the college, the U.S. Navy nor the Department of Defense.
“Clearly, after the first Trump administration strike last year, it has not deterred the [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad regime from using chemical weapons again,” she added, “…In words and actions, the Trump administration has been inconsistent relative to Syria. That gives Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime room to maneuver. In this particular case, Israel seems to have stepped in.”
Alvi said that neither the administration nor the U.N. have been effective in stopping chemical attacks in Syria, and dismissed the value of airstrikes against the regime.
“Assad and his comrades must be tried for war crimes,” said Alvi. “Anything else is cosmetic.”
By July, Trump had ended a CIA program funding rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Assad.
Two weeks ago, having decided that the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State was done and dusted, the president surprised the State Department and Pentagon by telling those gathered at a campaigning rally in Ohio that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon.” His generals have since floated a more realistic six-month timeline, although details are sparse.
“If we think about the conflict in Syria as a multi-actor bargaining situation, inconsistency is problematic, because it makes it difficult for other actors to predict what the U.S. will do and how the U.S. will respond to a new front opening up in the conflict, or Russia taking a hard line, or Russia sending more troops, or aircraft to back Assad, or Assad engaging in a chemical weapons attack,” said Wood.
“And more confusion tends to lead to more violence,” he said, noting that the gains of unpredictability or keeping one’s adversaries guessing are realized in only a very small subset of cases.
The only thing that has remained consistent is Trump’s stance on banning Syrians from entering the United States. Syria, which has been embroiled in seven years of conflict, is among the Muslim countries targeted by President Trump for his “travel” ban, and Syrians are not allowed to visit under an immigrant or non-immigrant visa.
The Trump administration has also set the refugee admissions cap to a historic low of just 45,000 refugees for 2018 — less than half of the 110,000 limit former President Barack Obama set in his last year in office.