Soon, perhaps by the time you read these words, President Trump will launch a missile strike against Syria.
It may be small; it may be large. Either way, it will enable Trump to declare victory and applaud his own resolve, probably on Twitter.
But the attack won’t have much effect, because it isn’t connected to a clear, coherent strategy.
The missile strike will accomplish one narrow goal: It will reaffirm the international norm against using chemical weapons. That’s a good thing.
But it won’t change much on the ground. It won’t alter the course of Syria’s seven-year war, which Bashar Assad is winning with help from Russia and Iran. It won’t even protect Syrian civilians from future chemical attacks. It’s mostly about us — and mainly about the president’s irritation that his “red line” has been ignored — not about them.
At the most basic level, Trump’s missile strike will be aimed at punishing Assad for dropping chemical weapons on a neighborhood full of children, and deterring him from doing it again. But the Syrian president, “Animal Assad” in Trump’s tweets, is willing to absorb the punishment.
That attack was intended to deter, too, but Assad resumed using chlorine gas after a few months. For the Syrian leader, the chance to eliminate pockets of opposition and demoralize his enemies by suffocating their children is worth the risk.
An effective deterrent would require a much larger action than last year’s pinprick strike. Trump would need to promise that future attacks will be met with a continuing, escalating campaign against Syrian military assets.
But that would draw the U.S. more deeply into the Syrian war, a step Trump has resisted, just as Barack Obama did. In 2011, Obama declared that Assad must go, but he never found a way to enforce that wish at an acceptable cost. It was his greatest foreign policy failure.
Then, as now, the U.S. had clear interests in Syria’s fate, well beyond the war’s terrible cost in human lives. Assad’s brutal rule has helped spawn terrorist opposition groups, including Islamic State, which briefly ruled much of Syria and Iraq. An Assad victory could turn Syria into a permanent base for Iranian military units on Israel’s northern border. (The country is already a base for Russia’s navy on the Mediterranean.)
Now it’s Trump’s turn to grapple with a no-win situation. American interests haven’t changed, but there is one new factor: About 2,000 U.S. troops are in eastern Syria, finishing up the war against Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The U.S. military is wrestling with a problem: Once Islamic State is defeated, what happens to the desert territory that pro-American forces have gained?
Last year, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a strategy of sorts. U.S. forces will remain in eastern Syria to help those local forces establish a provisional government, in a de facto American protectorate.
“What we are going to do is hold that territory and get it back in local leaders’ hands,” Mattis said a few weeks ago, “and assure that ISIS 2.0 doesn’t rise in the middle of all of that and derail everything we’re fought for.” At that point, he said, it will be up to the United Nations to restart its sputtering Geneva peace negotiations and produce a “post-conflict plan for the way ahead.”
But there’s a flaw in that strategy: President Trump doesn’t like it, especially if it means a long-term commitment. “I want to get out — I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said last week. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”
Trump reportedly told Mattis that U.S. troops could stay in Syria for now — but only for “months, not years.” Meanwhile, he ordered the State Department to halt reconstruction aid to the area.
That’s not going to work. Trump has suggested that Saudi Arabia or other Arab governments could take the mission over, but the Saudis are inexperienced and unready. The Assad regime will do its best to undermine any effort to establish a competing government in its eastern provinces. It is experienced and ready. And the Geneva process will take a very long time. The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a peace agreement without success since 2012. A declaration that the U.S. is there for “weeks, not months” is a virtual invitation for Assad to wait us out.
Just as Obama found, there are no easy choices in Syria, let alone easy victories. Trump will declare his missile strike a win, but don’t believe it. No strategy, no success.
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Opinion for the Los Angeles Times.