I think I understand the Trump administration’s Syria policy. In western Syria, we will assist the forces fighting against ISIS; in eastern Syria, we will enforce former president Obama’s alleged red line on chemical weapons, but otherwise stay out of the fight.
However, statements yesterday from top Trump administration officials make me wonder about the second prong of its Syria policy, thus understood. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. sees “no further role” for Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader. And U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted: “After today’s vote to hold Syria accountable it’s: A strong day for the US, a weak day for Russia, a new day for China & doomsday for Assad.” (emphasis added)
Does this mean that the Trump administration intends to engage Syria (and Russia) militarily in contexts other than responding to the use of chemical weapons? Or is the U.S. simply back in Obama administration mode, delivering Kerryesque utterances about it being time for Assad to go, but declining to undertake action that might topple him?
The missile attack on Assad’s air base hurt Russia’s prestige. Yet, Russia still holds all of the important cards in Syria. Putin and his allies are by far the dominant military power in eastern Syria. The U.S. is not a serious military player there.
Unless this changes, it seems silly to talk about Assad facing “doomsday” or having “no further role” in Syria. Haley’s comment strikes me as particularly naive. Since when do U.N. votes to hold countries “accountable” spell the end of the offending regime?
I support President Trump’s military response to Assad’s latest use of chemical weapons. It sends the right message — and not just to Syria and Russia — and may well deter future chemical attacks.
But it does nothing to alter the military equation in eastern Syria. That equation cannot be reversed on the cheap.
As long as Trump remains unwilling to undertake a serious military commitment to overthrowing Assad, I don’t see the purpose served by the rhetoric of Tillerson and Haley.