Trump and Syria: Seven Questions

Warning! This post contains discussions of politics, foreign policy, and international relations. It has zero photos or mentions of cute babies. Bail out now!

Yesterday, President Trump announced that the US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Shayrat Air Force Base in Syria, marking the first military action taken directly by the United States against Syrian forces in the course of the six-year long civil war. Trump alleges that Shayrat AFB was the origin for the chemical weapons attack that killed 72 people in Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

I have many questions.

1. Candidate and President-Elect Trump campaigned as a non-interventionist generally…

“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” Trump said.

Reuters, 12/6/2016Trump lays out non-interventionist U.S. military policy

… and as one opposed to intervention in Syria specifically, particularly intervention without Congressional approval.

[Trump] continued to question most US interventions, including what he described as an ill-considered Obama administration policy in Syria. … He went on to condemn the Obama administration for “backing people who they don’t know who they are”, and to warn that rebels backed by the United States “could be Isis”.

“Assad is bad,” Trump said. “Maybe these people could be worse.”

The Guardian, 10/13/15, “The Donald Trump doctrine: ‘Assad is bad’ but the U.S. must stop ‘nation-building'”

Donald Trump on Friday said that he would not pursue military action against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad but would go after the Islamic State in the region.

Calling in to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the presumptive Republican nominee reiterated that he would not have put the United States in Iraq or in Libya. When asked if he would exercise his power to put the military in Syria, he said he would not.

Politico, 5/20/16, “Trump pledges to hit Islamic State, not Assad”

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said on Tuesday that Democrat Hillary Clinton’s plan for Syria would “lead to World War Three,” because of the potential for conflict with military forces from nuclear-armed Russia.

“What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria. … You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton. … You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk,” he said.

Reuters, 10/26/16, “Exclusive: Trump says Clinton policy on Syria would lead to World War Three”

My question is: how and why have his views changed so sharply?

Of course, a person’s views on an issue can evolve over time. A President is certainly privy to information or intelligence that a candidate or private citizen is not. But I argue neither of these should apply here, because:

  • This isn’t an ancillary or minor issue where it would be easy and understandable to change one’s position. Trump made it a central theme of his foreign policy not to intervene in foreign conflicts.
  • As recently as December, Trump publicly maintained his opposition to foreign intervention.
  • Atrocious as chemical weapons may be, it was known that the Syrian government was using them against its own people as early as 2014, yet Trump continued his opposition to involvement in the Syrian conflict.

This is more than hypocrisy – this is an about-face on a critical global issue and one with life-or-death consequences. Even some of Trump’s biggest supporters are bewildered by this decision. The American people – indeed, the world – deserves an explanation.

2. What is Trump’s – and by extension, the United States’ – goal in Syria? Now that we have launched an attack against Assad’s forces, are we openly seeking regime change (as has long been the unstated policy goal of the US)? Are we going to back the Syrian rebels (who themselves are often affiliated with al-Qaeda)? Are we going to allow Assad to remain in power, but simply try to dismantle his ability to use chemical weapons?

The three sides in the Syrian civil war are the Assad-led government (which uses chemical weapons on its people); the anti-Assad rebels (who are affiliated with terrorist groups); and ISIS.

Whose side does Trump want us to take in this triangle of death?

3. How does Trump plan to accomplish that goal? Will he deploy more than just cruise missiles? Will he engage ground troops (or continue Obama’s policy of “military advisors,” also known as ground troops under a different name)? Will he engage fighter pilots? Any escalation forward will risk American lives. Any pullback signals weakness or defeat. What’s his strategic plan?

4. What is the Trump’s – and by extension, the United States’ – exit strategy from Syria? Now that we’ve launched an attack, will we continue to attack until we reach a stated goal (yet to be identified) as I ask in #2? Will we only serve as a tit-for-tat response mechanism — that is, if Assad does something really outrageous (as opposed to his usual run-of-the-mill brutality) we’ll bomb him a little bit in response, but otherwise we’ll continue to let his activities slide? How long might that go on, and what purpose will it serve? Or was this a one-time attack, a single volley to prove … what?

Once we reach that goal, how do we extricate ourselves from the Syrian conflict? Simply walking away can leave a disastrous vaccuum, as ISIS proved in Iraq and al Qaeda proved in Afghanistan. Are we willing to commit ourselves to refereeing another decades-long conflict in a faraway country while the American body count ticks up and up and up?

5. Is anyone questioning the official narrative here, that Assad used these chemical weapons? I ask because:

A. Assad has essentially routed the rebels at this point, defeating them in Aleppo and Homs.

The armed opposition were divided; different parties fought each other as recently as November. There was also probably a feeling among the rebels that the outcome of the battle was inevitable once it became evident that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, their allies since 2011, were not going to do anything to support them.

The Independent, 12/13/16, “The rebels of Aleppo will fight on, but Assad is taking their last power base in Syria”

In a grim assessment of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday that the country’s armed opposition will not be able to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now or in the foreseeable future, despite the existence of a Pentagon program to train and equip 5,000 rebels per year.

“We do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove him from power,” Brett McGurk, one of the State Department’s point men in managing the ad hoc international coalition battling the Islamic State, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It will have to be a diplomatic process.”

Foreign Policy, 12/10/14, “US State Dept: Rebels are never going to defeat Assad militarily”

B. The two sides were scheduled to begin peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland this week.

So Assad has won the military battle, has a strong negotiating position, and is set to sit down with the opposition for peace talks. Why then would he suddenly deploy a massive chemical weapons strike, forcing the world to condemn him, provoking military responses by other actors (like the U.S.) and risk his own seat in power? It doesn’t make sense. Assad may be a brutal dictator but he’s not stupid.

Is there something else going on here?

6. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Russia in advance that the U.S. would be launching this attack, which – given Russia and Syria’s ties – served as advance notice to the Syrian army. They were able to avoid personnel casualties or equipment loss.

Sec. of State Rex Tillerson revealed late Thursday that the U.S. warned Russia that they would be bombing the airfield in Homs, Syria since there was Russian military in the vicinity.

ABC News reported early Friday that the Syrian military seemed to know that something might happen. Eyewitnesses claim the military then evacuated personnel and moved equipment before the strike took place.


If the purpose of and justification for the strike was a proportionate response to the chemical weapons attack, I don’t follow the line of reasoning. We didn’t disable the equipment that would allow future attacks. We didn’t kill those responsible for the attacks. We disabled an air base, but Syria has many airbases. What did we accomplish?

7. The U.S. doesn’t just have Assad to worry about. Russia, perhaps Assad’s strongest supporter, has categorically condemned our airstrike and has walked away from any partnership with us in the region.

Trump rightly said in the above quote that “You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.”

That’s Trump-speak for: Syria is a proxy war where Assad forces are backed by Russia and Iran, protecting their interests in the region. Attacking Assad would put you in a de facto war against Russia and Iran. And Russia, unlike rogue states or failed states, has the world’s second-largest fully-functional nuclear arsenal. So don’t poke the bear.

He’s right – but he seems to have forgotten his own advice. How does Trump plan to resolve the detente with Russia now?

Equally, this attack may draw Iran further into the conflict. Iran, a majority Shia Islam country, sees the fight by largely Sunni rebels against the Shia government of Assad as a religious war, just as much as one for political control. Previously, the rebels had been supplied by Turkey, a predominately Sunni country, but Turkey has said they will no longer back the rebels. As a result, Iran may have been poised to scale back its involvement, but with the Great Satan attacking its ally Assad, along with Trump’s vocal and vociferous attacks on the Obama-negotiated Iran nuclear deal, Iran may say “enough is enough” and fully join in the fight to protect the Syrian government.

How does Trump plan to handle such a problem there?

In fact, there is not only just the one Sunni-Shia proxy war going on. According to some estimates, the Syrian civil war has *eight* different proxy conflicts occurring simultaneously.


In Summary

No goal.

No exit strategy.

Eight different proxy wars.

A complete 180 from a key campaign promise.

Putting Americans in harm’s way, and risking retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and its interests.

We need answers, but more than that, we need to cease our involvement immediately.

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