Just What Is Trump Trying to Do in Syria?

One week after President Donald Trump’s cruise-missile strike against Syria, one fact stands out above all others: The White House and secretary of state are inexplicably incapable of conveying American intentions to friends, foes, the American public and all other concerned parties. Leaders around the world can reasonably wonder whether the U.S. government has telegraphed its determination to do as little as humanly possible to step Syria’s long bloodletting or lit the fuse to World War III.

Effective signaling in foreign policy and warfare is both vital and no simple matter, as every president discovers. But the confusion sown by the April 6 raid on the Shayrout air base—which has been followed by wildly varying, often irreconcilable public statements heralding far-reaching political changes and a new approach to stopping mass atrocities—is nothing short of remarkable.

Let’s start with the the scale of the air raid itself. In the annals of pinprick strikes, Trump’s Tomahawk attack now stands as the pinprickliest. Republican politicians began using the term pinprick strike in 1998 when the Clinton administration targeted Iraqi military installations suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction. During that four-day campaign, the United States and Britain together launched 425 submarine, ship and air-launched cruise missiles and flew 600 manned aircraft sorties, destroying nearly 100 targets throughout Iraq. Obviously, by that standard, last week’s strike—which consisted of firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a single Syrian air base—was a different and vastly inferior species.

Instead, this episode most closely resembles the first military action of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the 1993 attack against Iraqi intelligence headquarters. That strike was undertaken in response to the discovery of an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait. The U.S. attack involved a mere 23 cruise missiles and destroyed the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence. Though some at the time criticized it as an unimpressive show of force, it’s fair to assume this signal had some impact: Iraq never again attempted to kill a U.S. president, and, indeed, never supported another terrorist attack against Americans, presumably because it felt it could not plan to do so without being detected. (The plot, many will recall, had a fateful aftermath, as George W. Bush’s remark that Saddam was “the guy who tried to kill my dad” explained for many his determination to wage war against Iraq in 2003.)

It’s difficult to compare such diverse cases, but in terms of the match between provocation—in this case the killing of 80 civilians, many of them civilians—and action, last week’s strike seems to emerge from a different universe than both the 1993 and 1998 attacks. The minimal damage caused by the April 6 strike is unlikely to be persuasive.

To a significant degree, that was due to forewarning. Appropriately, Washington notified Russian authorities to warn them of the impending attack so Russian military personnel could be evacuated. Just as everyone should have expected, the Russians notified the Syrians, who reportedly moved their most important aircraft elsewhere before the strike. The very next day, Syrian airplanes were once again flying from the base to hit rebel targets. Militarily, that doesn’t present an issue; the Pentagon said that the usability of a runway at Shayrout the day after the U.S. strike was of “idle interest.” But from the perspective of international politics, the fact that the airstrip was in the use the next day was not negligible. Perceptions count, and the perception of this attack must have been that the U.S. was merely going through the motions.

So given the limited scope of the strike, it’s worth asking: What was the message Trump was intending to send Syria and their benefactors in Moscow? One might think that it was to signal to the government of Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons against civilians is an intolerable affront and should not be repeated. That was certainly Trump’s message in his statement at Mar-a-Lago, when he declared, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” If this was the administration’s goal, it’s a worthy one. The taboo on chemical weapons use has been painstakingly built up over a century—though not without infractions—and the Syrians should not have gone unpunished.

But could a strike that limited really have any such an effect? This attack possibly even eroded the chemical weapons taboo by convincing any would-be transgressors that the worst they could expect would be the loss of a small number of inessential aircraft after an advance warning—in other words, a slap on the wrist. The clearest signal of all would have required a serious punitive attack on the regime itself, a step whose legality would be open to question and that would risk a dangerous escalation with Russia. But if Trump considered that route too dangerous—a reasonable conclusion—he still had other, more punishing options to consider. Administration sources have said that Trump was provided with more aggressive options and the Pentagon would have been willing and able to carry them out. To be sure, a warning to the Russians—and the inevitable tipoff to the Syrians—would still have been necessary, and even so avoiding Russian casualties would have been tricky, but a more robust attack would certainly have sent a much clearer message.

The fact that Trump chose the least aggressive option available suggests that the principal audience for the strikes was not in Damascus or Moscow, but the United States. In this reading, the missile strike was an ideal means for the commander-in-chief to avoid the opprobrium that his predecessor experienced for opting not to strike in 2013 after Assad’s first chemical weapons attack and instead work with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons stocks. Given Trump’s compulsive need for adulation and his desire to criticize Obama and contrast himself with the 44th president, the strike may have been a foregone conclusion, whatever Trump had said earlier about staying out of Syria.

So was the strike political kabuki, nonproliferation norm enforcement on the cheap, both or something more? As the days passed, figuring out what the attack meant became more and more difficult as administration spokesmen put out confusing often contradictory messages, sometimes even multiple times a day.

Astonishingly, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested in a press briefing Monday that there was now open-ended U.S. commitment to intervene to stop the killing of civilians. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bombing to innocent people, I think you can see a response from this president,” Spicer said, repeating the formulation twice in one day. Spicer seemed to be channeling the outrage Trump reportedly felt when seeing pictures of children who had been gassed, which the White House went out of its way to underscore. “What the world saw last night was the United States commander in chief, and also a father and grandfather,” said Kellyanne Conway. “The world recoiled in horror at babies writhing and struggling to live. And who could avert their gaze—and that includes our very tough, very resolute, very decisive president.” Yet later, the White House appeared to walk Spicer’s statement back, saying “nothing has changed in our posture. The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added to the confusion by issuing his own series of conflicting signals. Immediately after the U.S. strike, he announced that Syria policy was not changing, and that “our approach today and our policy today is first to defeat ISIS.” Later, he too succumbed to verbal mission creep, saying on April 11 that the era of Assad family rule was coming to an end—an assessment at odds with most military analysts’ views of the state of the fight between the regime and its opponents. And, at a G-7 ministerial meeting in Italy, the secretary seemed to echo Spicer with a broad commitment to fight the world’s evildoers, announcing at the commemoration of a World War II massacre, “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

As if the semiotic haze weren’t already thick enough, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in his first interview on April 9 suggested that the administration had embraced the goal of regime change in Syria though indicating that others would do the hard work of that task, which the international community has failed to do for years. Finally, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley won the sweepstakes by enunciating war aims more far-reaching than McMaster’s: It is a U.S. priority, she said, “to get the Iranian influence out” of Syria, a country where the Tehran clerical regime has invested money—in the billions—and manpower over decades to support its sole ally and historic conduit to the Shiite community in Lebanon. Trump’s own rhetoric has both echoed and contradicted Haley, as he said on April 11 that “we’re not going into Syria” after asserting just days before that “we have a vital strategic interest in Syria.” However vital he may think our interest is, it doesn’t begin to match up to how Iran views its interest in Syria.

All of these conflicting statements and largely inscrutable acts are no doubt reverberating in Damascus and Moscow, but not there alone. The strike took place while Trump was digging into, as he put it, “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the midst of summit in which the question of North Korea loomed large. Administration spokesmen even pointed to the strikes as a warning to Pyongyang as it moves closer to putting a nuclear warhead atop a long-range missile.

But what exactly were the North Koreans supposed to make of this signal? The problem with signaling in international relations is the gap between what you say and what your audience hears. No doubt, as Kim Jong-un and his generals will think hard about their next steps and the likely responses by a president who, uniquely in the history of American foreign policy, boasts of his unpredictability while showing no ability to think one step ahead. In that context, they may well see Trump’s attack against Syria as reason not to worry: a perfunctory box checking, a pinprick, and not a sign of America’s solemn commitment to defend its Asian allies and its own interest whatever the cost. If anything leads to miscalculation in Pyongyang, Shayrout may be the place to which we trace it back.

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