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On Thursday evening, US Tomahawk missiles struck Shayrat Airfield in Homs province, Syria, in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal chemical weapons attack days before that killed 82 civilians including children and infants.
In his address last night to the nation, President Trump stated, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons” and continued, “Tonight I call on all civilized nations in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
AEI experts respond to the President’s actions and their implications for the conflict in Syria as well as US foreign relations in the region:
Leon Aron, Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies
The peculiar honeymoon, already clouded by the Russian cyberattacks in the US, is now over. By far the most important consequence of the cruise missile strike on the Syrian airfield is its impact on US-Russian relations. The reason for this outsized importance is Vladimir Putin’s domestic political stakes in protecting Assad. No matter what he told foreign leaders, it was the “restoration of the legitimate government of Syria” – not fighting ISIS – that Putin promised his domestic constituencies.
This was taken from an AEIdeas blog titled, “The Road to Damascus Runs through Moscow.” Read the full text here.
Thomas Donnelly, Resident Fellow and Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies
Whatever the president’s motivation, there’s a good case to be made that, at least in regard to the Middle East, a coherent approach is emerging. This represents both a reversal from the Iran-first gambit of the Obama years and a reaffirmation of the traditional US strategy that held sway from Jimmy Carter in 1979 through George W. Bush in 2009.
The Shayrat strikes were more than symbolic, or at least differently symbolic. Trump fired nearly 60 Tomahawks at the Syrians, whereas the raid on the 1998 Shifa pharmaceutical plant that was thought to house chemical weapons facilities was just 13 missiles. Where Bill Clinton was content with a “pinprick,” Trump shwacked the Syrians with a two-by-four.
This was taken from a Weekly Standard op-ed titled, “Are We Witnessing a Trump Turnaround?” Read the full text here.
Frederick W. Kagan, Resident Scholar and Director, Critical Threats Project and Christopher DeMuth Chair
President Trump’s decision to attack the airfield from which the most recent chemical attack was launched must be the start of a new strategy. It must begin a campaign to drive the Assad regime to compromise. It must be the start of an effort to regain the confidence of Sunni Arabs in Syria and around the world that the US stands with them against all those who would attack them, ISIS and Al Qaeda as well as Iran and its proxies. …
The US missile attack was designed to avoid causing Russian casualties, and America should continue to try to avoid direct conflict with Russia and with Iran. It showed, however, that the US will not allow fear of such a conflict to force us to a policy of total passivity. A prudent strategy will continue to manage escalation while simultaneously opening new possibilities for American action in our own national security interests.
This was taken from a New York Daily News op-ed titled, “Missile strikes on Syria show Trump administration knows it must end de facto US partnership with Assad, Iran and Russia.” Read the full text here.
Phillip Lohaus, Research Fellow, Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies
Last night, the United States sent a message to the Middle East’s most notorious schoolyard bully: there are consequences for using weapons of mass destruction on your own people. This was a just and appropriate response to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack. Though not decisive from a strategic point of view, the strike counteracts the message promulgated by Assad that the world doesn’t care about the fate of the Syrian people, and sends a well-timed message to North Korea and China that this “America First” president is unafraid to employ American power for moral reasons.
Some cannot bring themselves to see past the President’s ban on Syrian refugees, claiming hypocrisy. But to solve the problem of the schoolyard bully, you don’t necessarily have to invite his victims into your home. Chipping away at Assad’s ability and confidence to act with impunity is the first step to creating a Syria where citizens feel safe enough to stay. That outcome will require more than airstrikes, but after eight years of fumbling about, last night’s decision shows that, when it comes to Syria’s fate, America is back in the game.
Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
Many in Washington and around the country profess to know Donald Trump and his mind. And to be fair, his posture as candidate for president never once suggested that before 100 days were out, he would be launching TLAMs into Syria. If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said he was on track to favor an Assad-led solution that met his goal of defeating ISIS, and nothing else.
But yesterday is no more. Can Trump explain to those supporters most outraged by his actions (including the fringe loonies who labeled the sarin attack a “false flag operation”) why he did what he did? Does the vast mass of his supporters give a damn about what he chooses to do in Syria? Is he looking for a long-term solution to the ISIS and al Qaeda challenge in the Middle East? None of those questions has a clear answer.
Let us hope that in the days to come, the new President and his national security team will make clear that the Trump administration has a strategy to defeat our enemies and to renew the American people’s support for decisive US leadership that will keep us safe, begin to end terror’s scourge, start the resolution of the refugee problem and turn around the weakness of the last eight years. Let us hope.
This was taken from a CNN op-ed titled, “The questions Trump needs to answer after Syria strike.” Read the full text here.
Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar
Does the US strike put Washington and Moscow on a collision course in Syria? Not necessarily. Rather than exacerbate conflict, Trump’s unilateralism could actually catalyze cooperation. Both Trump and the Pentagon were careful. They targeted Ash Shar’irat for a simple reason: It was the base from which Syrian planes launched the Khan Sheikhoun attack. And while the speed of the strike and its unilateralism might have surprised Syrians, an administration official said that the Pentagon warned Russia about the imminence of the attack via a military hotline between commanders to avoid hitting Russian forces. …
As the smoke clears over Ash Sha’irat, the next step in the US-Russian dance over Syria will be in the shadows as Washington and Moscow get down to business to determine if they can agree on a placeholder from Assad’s inner circle who can take over the reins of power while Assad exits to an inglorious Moscow or Tehran exile. That may have seemed improbably a week ago but sometimes the threat of military force opens new diplomatic deals.
This was taken from a Fortune op-ed titled, “Trump’s Missile Strikes Could Help End Syria’s Civil War.“ Read the full text here. Also, for more from Rubin on Trump’s military options in Syria, read here.
Gary J. Schmitt, Resident Scholar, Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and Director of the Program on American Citizenship
No doubt responding forcefully to the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population is in our national interest. The international norm against such barbaric behavior needs enforcement, and, unless Washington leads, there will be no enforcement. And the impact of the refugee crisis has had and is having a serious strategic impact on our allies. But, that said, is there also any doubt that the administration could have gotten an authorization from Congress to take the action it did? And, if the question was one of urgency and surprise, the administration can and should go to Congress now, report what action it has taken, and ask for a resolution of approval.
This was taken from a Weekly Standard op-ed titled, “Legal precedents for the president’s Syria strike.” Read the full text here.
Marc A. Thiessen, Resident Fellow
Just as Obama’s inaction sent a message of weakness across the world – a message heard from Damascus to Moscow, Tehran, Beijing and Pyongyang – Trump’s action has projected a message of strength. And just as weakness is provocative, strength deters would-be aggressors who now have to adjust their calculations about America’s willingness to act, unilaterally if necessary, in response to their provocations. …
The fact that he gave the order to strike Assad while the president of China was at Mar-a-Lago discussing what to do about North Korea certainly must have sent a message to the Chinese leader – and changed the tenor of the next day’s conversations. Trump’s earlier declaration: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will” no longer sounds like just bluster.
This was taken from an AEIdeas blog titled, “Trump enforces Obama’s red line.” Read the full text here.
Paul Wolfowitz, Visiting Scholar
President Trump may have initially believed that he could avoid the fork in the road presented by the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria by simply blaming the crime on Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” four years ago. Fortunately it seems he has reconsidered.
This was taken from a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “For Syria, Words Won’t Be Enough.” To read the full piece, click here.
Katherine Zimmerman, Research Fellow
The US cruise missile strikes are the first step to restoring America’s credibility within the very population—the Sunni Arabs—that it must win over to secure its strategic interests in the Middle East. The action against the Assad regime starts to chip away at al Qaeda’s narrative that it alone is the defender of the Syrian Sunni. But an isolated response will not achieve systemic effects. It is impossible to defeat al Qaeda and ISIS without the support of the Sunni, and re-establishing America’s credibility will certainly be difficult. The risk of escalation with Russia and Iran is real, and not limited to Syria. US inaction is just as or possibly even more damaging to American interests in the long term. The US should now lead an effort to end the atrocities in Syria, remove the gains that both Iran and Russia have made during the war, and defeat al Qaeda and ISIS.
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