The war in Syria is why Presidents get gray hair earlier in life than the rest of us.
Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons again and people everywhere are pointing fingers. Some blame Obama, while others blame Trump, while others blame both. The latest gas attack comes not that long after Trump announced his plan to leave Syria, which Assad likely interpreted as a green light to carry out the attacks. After the attacks the White House released a statement that said Trump had talked with French President Emanuel Macron promising a “strong, joint response.” Trump also called Assad an “animal” on Twitter and listed “President Putin, Russia and Iran” as his accomplices.
This is the situation in Syria. The President appears to be torn on what to do. He is stuck in the middle of two bad options.
On one hand, there are those who want the US to get out of Syria and the sooner the better. These people do not see a significant American interest in Syria to warrant further American involvement. There have been an astronomical amount of civilian casualties since the war began and they wonder why these are any more worthy of American involvement than the previous couple hundred thousand.
The web of alliances in the Syrian Civil War is so complex it makes Europe in 1914 look like child’s play. They readily admit that Assad is a brutal, mass murdering, anti-American tyrant, but they are not prepared to believe that the opposition is the Syrian equivalent to George Washington and the Continental Army.
Most importantly, they believe that the devil we know is better than any unknown that would come from regime change. Unknowns could be anything from potential war with the Russians and thus igniting World War III, to just more chaos and instability where terrorists who were once described as “moderate” or “rebels” or “freedom fighters” by certain pro-regime change politicians prove to be even worse than Assad. They warn that Syria would just turn into another Iraq or Libya.
The problem with this argument is that it accepts Russian and Iranian gains in the Middle East since the war began . They are, therefore, wrong to say we have no interest in Syria. Russia is back in the Middle East playing a significant role for the first time in decades. Iran has great influence now, in not just Syria, but also in Iraq and Lebanon and the country is currently fomenting unrest in Yemen in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia.
People on the other side see retreat from Syria as a moral abdication. Chemical weapons, they argue, are not like regular weapons for they are designed to be indiscriminate. The use of chemical weapons threatens international norms, which if not punished could lead to their further use. The use of military force in response shows Assad and any other bad actor that the United States has the will and the ability to punish such behavior which enhances American deterrence. If the United States will not stop or punish Assad then no one will. Simply put, Assad is the source of Syria’s conflict and therefore he has to go or at least has to have his power diminished, severely.
They do not agree that we have no compelling national interest in Syria. They view Syria as just another theater in the various proxy wars with Iran for regional influence and another balance of power bout with Russia. Removing or weakening Assad would eliminate or diminish Russian influence in the Middle East. Dislodging Syria from Iranian influence in the so-called Shia Crescent would be a huge setback for Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, a quest that Obama acquiesced in order to keep Tehran from scuttling his precious nuclear deal. This would be to the benefit of the United States and our other regional partners such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and of course, Israel.
The more hawkish elements of this latter approach are plagued by the same “do somethingism” that dominates our domestic politics. Let us say we remove Assad, then what? There are so many questions that arise from a pro-regime change policy that to list all of them would require a whole other article. Some argue that the debate over regime change is beside the point as Assad does not control certain parts of his country. Noah Rothman at Commentary for example, argues for a multinational quasi-occupational akin to what was set up at Potsdam. It is a creative suggestion, but in the real world it is never going to happen.
These are the two options Trump finds himself situated between. On one hand he ran for President on the folly of regime change and understandably does not want to risk war with Moscow. On the other hand he does not want to go down in history as the President who normalized the use of WMDs by simply standing by and doing nothing while innocents suffered and died. Both sides of the debate have good points and both sides have blind spots. The moral of the story is that foreign policy is complicated and anyone acts as if the Syrian situation would solve itself, if only we followed their wisdom is simply mistaken. The best thing for the United States to do is probably to diminish Assad’s power as much as possible, thus simultaneously weakening Russia and Iran, without directly removing him.