President Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield late Thursday in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 70 people earlier in the week. The decision represented a huge shift from the administration’s earlier approach toward the Syrian government, but it is also remarkable because it shows the lack of any coherent foreign policy.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters that the Trump administration wouldn’t try to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” Haley said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
Even after Thursday’s airstrike on the Shayrat airbase, which the Pentagon has identified as holding chemical weapons, the Trump administration claims it has still not changed its position on Syria.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status,” Tillerson told reporters after the strike. “I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.”
International relations experts say that this is a sign of the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy.
“Trump made an 180 on this and it is a pretty striking 180. Just last week, senior officials were talking about coming to terms with Assad and legitimizing Assad,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the The Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “It is concerning that Trump’s approach to Syria and maybe to foreign policy writ large is completely incoherent.”
Hamid said it’s strange that Trump would meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi earlier in the week, given his disastrous human rights record, and then make the decision to launch cruise missiles in Syria.
Trump had nothing but praise for the Egyptian leader during the meeting, who has seen a brutal crackdown on human rights in the country. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” Trump said. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”
James Joyner, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, also said there doesn’t seem to be a coherent foreign policy. Joyner said he doesn’t see any strategy in place for a second action.
“It doesn’t look like it will take out the airfield for very long… So then what? Then it’s a shot across the bow and ‘Hey, we’re going to do this again,’” Joyner said, “But we need to be circumspect about which target we hit because we’ve got the Russians there now. So we can’t hit the Russian forces without a superpower confrontation so it’s not clear to me what we achieved, other than a symbolic airstrike and looking like we are doing something.”
Joyner said Trump is mostly reacting to what is happening in Syria, rather than thinking about a long-term foreign policy vision for the country. Joyner said he is worried the presence of foreign fighters, Al Qaeda, and ISIL would make it challenging to replace Assad.
“He doesn’t have a strategic vision about foreign policy… He is very slowly putting together a credible national security team,” Joyner said. “… This isn’t the worst of the options. It’s a demonstration strike that doesn’t have a lot of negative effects, since we minimized civilian casualties. We didn’t hit Russians. We avoided getting U.S. personnel killed. So ‘Yay’ on all those fronts, but to what end?”
Hamid, who is in favor of strikes against the Assad regime, said he welcomes the change in position, however.
“If that is what I’m choosing between, I think we should encourage Trump to change where we think changes are good. I think the statement that he is flexible on this based on changing facts on the ground is not something that should be criticized for,” Hamid said.
Hamid said he sees military action as necessary to force Assad to “negotiate in good faith” and make compromises and concessions. “We have tried the alternative, diplomacy, without threat of military force since 2011 with and those efforts have failed,” Hamid said. “My concern is that this would be a one-off and doing something for the sake of doing something, and then there is no follow-through and it’s not tied to any broader strategic vision for Syria and not tied to the objective of ending the Syrian civil war.”
Trump’s actions are a break from the Obama administration’s policies on Syria. The Obama administration has launched strikes against ISIS in Syria, but never the Syrian government. President Obama considered launching airstrikes in 2013, but backed off after he faced resistance in Congress.
In the past, Trump has made various statements on what U.S. foreign policy towards Syria should look like. During the campaign, he said the United States should ally itself with Russia and the Syrian government and said Assad could be a “natural ally” in fighting terrorism. He has also floated the idea of establishing “safe zones” in Syria.