As a fairly relentless critic of President Trump, it comes as something of a relief to have an occasion on which one can offer at least qualified support for our President. Support for the Syrian missile attack is warranted because the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Air Force had created a situation that seemed to demand something more than a verbal response. The missile attack can be supported because it was narrowly designed to avoid civilian (or Russian) casualties and to avoid enlarging the role of the United States before we have fashioned a coherent policy with domestic and international support. It may also have had the positive effect of cooling the perplexing bromance between Trump and Putin. Finally, it gave the President an opportunity to demonstrate that he could address the nation in calm and measured terms on a matter that, though not a crisis, did involve a significant military action.
On the other hand, support must clearly be qualified on several grounds. To begin with, it is troubling that what may reflect a major change in American policy was made in the space of two days and apparently sprang from the President’s distress at seeing the horrific pictures of the victims of the chemical attack, notably including children and infants. No doubt we all share that distress but, however well justified, it is a questionable basis for spontaneous policy formulation.
More importantly, it is not at all clear what lies ahead. Was the missile strike a one-off event or does it portend further military action in Syria? One-off attacks have historically been unproductive, and standing alone, the attack on the Syrian airbase may be no more than a footnote in the tragic history of that country. Apart from “sending a message” to Assad, and perhaps Russia, the question is whether the message will have any impact on events on the ground? Will Assad be restrained from further chemical attacks on his citizens or will he be emboldened by having withstood U.S. military action and suffered no lasting impact on Syrian military capacity?
At the same time, expanded military operations in Syria would raise a host of complex issues. Not the least of these is the potential for military conflict with Russia. While we reportedly gave Russia some advance warning of the attack to avoid or minimize casualties among Russians at the Syrian base, Russia has reacted to the attack by suspending an agreement to coordinate air operations over the region that was designed to avoid accidental conflict in the skies. This is not helpful. The Wall Street Journal urges destroying the Syrian Air Force and establishing “safe zones” enforced by U.S. and allied air sorties. The risk of conflict with Russia is noted but only grudgingly:
Mr. Putin could escalate and engage U.S. forces. But Mr. Obama used that excuse to talk himself into doing nothing, and our guess is that Mr. Putin would shrink from fighting the U.S. lest he risk the humiliation of major losses.
Perhaps the Journal’s “guess” is right, but the potential risk surely demands a far more rigorous analysis. To be sure, neither Russia nor the United States could wish a direct military conflict—something we managed to avoid throughout the Cold War—but nations have more than once blundered into wars they did not need or desire.
Further military operations would also involve significant legal and political challenges. As a legal matter, even the air base missile attack stood on shaky grounds under both international and domestic law. While Syria violated the Chemical Weapons Convention and a related Security Council resolution, neither authorizes a military response. Nor could the attack be justified under international law as self-defense. As a matter of domestic law the attack was not covered by the existing Authorization to Use Military Force (which was directed against al Qaeda and, arguably, its progeny such as ISIS.) For helpful analyses, see Lawfare, “What Was the Legal Basis for U.S. Air Strikes Against Syria?” and New York Times, “Was Trump’s Syria Strike Illegal? Explaining Presidential War Powers.” If the air strike was a one-time event, the debate over its legality will likely be muted and short-lived, but expanded military operations would be another matter. Equally important, and legalities aside, it would likely be a mistake to engage in extended military operations in Syria without significant political support reflected in some form of Congressional approval.
Such approval will not necessarily be easy to come by. The attack on the air base has drawn considerable bi-partisan support in Congress, but also criticism from some on both sides of the aisle. More criticism may be expected if further operations are proposed or undertaken, particularly if they are not accompanied by a clear and plausible strategy. Whether the Trump administration can formulate such a strategy remains to be seen.