April 13, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – Trump's Syria Challenge

President Trump made the right call in striking Syria. He showed that the United States remains willing to defend international norms and that when countries use chemical weapons, they pay a price. But having done so, Trump now faces the same dilemma that plagued his predecessor. Does the United States intervene further and own the raging conflict? Or does it step back and accept that others, including Russia and Iran, will play a bigger role in shaping Syria’s future?

Of course, both choices are fraught. Stepping back now would mean letting a humanitarian nightmare continue unabated (the current death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching 500,000.) It would mean a continued flow of refugees across the Middle East and Europe, with the attendant political destabilization that follows. It may also send the wrong signal to Russia and China, who wish to take advantage of American weakness in other areas of the world.

Further intervention, on the other hand, carries its own set of risks. An escalation of tensions with Russia. A substantial increase in budgetary costs. A bloody quagmire on the scale of Iraq. Moreover, as the United States’ recent history in the Middle East makes clear, there is no guarantee that more aggressive military intervention produces favorable results. 

So which path is Trump likely to take? And which path should we want him to take?

The first question is difficult to answer, as Trump and his administration have thus far given mixed messages. According to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, removing Bashar al-Assad is a top priority, but for Rex Tillerson, that designation belongs to the effort to defeat ISIS. For his part, President Trump has said he wants to stay out of Syria and has yet to put forward a coherent strategy for the region.

To the question of which path is most desirable, I continue to believe that the ultimate solution to the Syrian crisis lies in the hands of local and regional actors – and that taking ownership of the conflict and its resolution carries costs that are greater than the benefits. A tough call, for sure. Which is why it all the more essential, as Nicholas Burns writes in the Financial Times, that one critical way to help alleviate Syrian suffering is for America to open its doors to more refugees. 

The conflict in Syria is perhaps the most complex crisis in international politics today. This Week's Reads discuss America's recent intervention and what may come next. 

Syria Will Stain Obama’s Legacy Forever

David Greenberg/Foreign Policy

Written in December 2016 as a review of President Obama’s foreign policy, especially his efforts in Syria, this David Greenberg essay looks at the degree to which Obama’s failure to prevent further conflict in Syria will stain his legacy forever. Greenberg runs through a litany of implications of this failure, from its impact on Europe’s immigration crisis to the rise of the Islamic state. While history will judge Obama with the benefit of hindsight, Greenberg concludes that “for now it seems hard to escape the conclusion that in correcting for Bush’s overly aggressive foreign policy, Obama went too far in avoiding confrontations.”

The Obama Doctrine, RIP

Jeffrey Goldberg/The Atlantic

In this elegy for Obama’s off-playbook doctrine, Jeffrey Goldberg revisits President Obama’s decision to refrain from intervening in Syria in 2013 in light of his successor’s strike on Syria. In contrast with public opinion, Goldberg notes, Obama was proud of his decision to forgo the conventional military response and instead to cooperate with Russia to see Syria’s chemical weapons disposed of. As Syrian chemical attacks have continued, however, it has become increasingly apparent that Obama’s countermeasures were ineffective. While there is uncertainty as to what Trump’s next moves will be, Obama’s unconventionally soft tactics seem to have left the White House with him.

Does Trump Know What to Do After Syria

Eliot A. Cohen/The Atlantic

In the wake of President Trump’s “first substantial military operation,” Eliot Cohen reviews what we already know about this administration’s military strategy and attempts to predict what comes next. Cohen speaks positively of the president’s indignation in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons but notes that, by forewarning the Russians and striking only once, this gesture was ultimately ineffective. Noting the chaotic nature of this administration, Cohen concludes: “We simply do not know what principles will guide the Trump administration’s reactions to that world. The problem is, the Trump administration does not either.”

With Strike on Syria Trump Sends a Global Message

Gerald F. Seib/The Wall Street Journal

When President Trump ordered the recent Syrian missile strike, it sent a message across the world. In this piece, Gerald Seib offers conjecture as to what that message might be. With Trump’s actions seeming to emphasize his “tough-guy” approach over his America-first isolationism, Russian and Syrian officials have had their assumptions on Trump’s willingness to collaborate challenged. Similarly, North Korea and China must now contend with the possibility of similar retaliation in response to future acts of provocation. At the moment, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s message will inspire defiance or moderation from his opposing players on the global stage.

Trump's Syria Opportunity

Editorial/The Wall Street Journal

Until last week, statements from the Trump administration indicated that the situation in Syria that Trump inherited from Obama would be quietly ignored. Now, the commander-in-chief finds himself presented with an opportunity that may also prove to be a difficult test. Continuing or escalating his direct intervention in Syria could lead to an escalation of hostilities with Russia, but Trump also has a chance to reassert the United States’ willingness to intervene when a line is crossed, potentially leading the way to a stronger international response to the ongoing Syrian civil war.

In Striking Syria, Trump Made All the Right Calls

Walter Russel Mead/The Wall Street Journal

Coming out as strongly supportive of the president, Walter Russel Mead calls the airstrike in Syria the “first test” for Trump’s administration, declaring that he has weathered it and emerged triumphant. Mead emphasizes the support President Trump has garnered in the international community, citing the wide appeal that the show of force in Syria has ignited in America’s allies. Equally important, in the author’s view, is the strong message it sends to America’s opponents as well. Complimenting Trump for the timing of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mead portrays the missile strike as a strong power play on the part of the president.

Donald Trump’s Welcome Show of US Global Leadership

Nicholas Burns/Financial Times

Following President Trump’s strike against Syria, Nicholas Burns outlines a number of follow-on opportunities to “articulate a more detailed strategy for how the US intends to help stem the violence and bloodshed that have left more than half a million Syrians dead.” Burns lists several actions – carving out safe zones or a no-fly-zone in Syria with Turkey’s support or launch negotiations on Syria’s future without Assad. But Burns argues that “the most direct way the president could help Syria’s besieged population would be to open America’s doors to Syrian refugees.”

‘Horrible’ Pictures of Suffering Moved Trump to Action on Syria

Ashley Parker, David Nakamura, and Dan Lamothe/The Washington Post

For the “visual and auditory” learner commander-in-chief, it was the pictures from the chemical weapons attack in Syria that pushed him to action, write Ashley Parker, David Nakamura, and Dan Lamothe. In this tick tock about what led up to the US response, the writers note that Trump spoke several times about the “beautiful babies” who had been killed, saying in the Rose Garden next to Jordanian King Abdullah II, “that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line – many, many lines.”

It’ll Take More than a Missile Strike to Clean up Obama’s Mess in Syria

Robert Kagan/The Washington Post

Robert Kagan praises Trump’s response to the Syria chemical weapons attack but argues that it “needs to be just the opening salvo in a broader campaign not only to protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime but also to reverse the downward spiral of US power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world.” Noting that Obama’s Syria policy led to the massive refugee crisis in Europe, the ascendancy of Russia, and am emboldened Iran, among other outcomes, Kagan sees an opportunity for the strike to be “the opening move in a comprehensive political, diplomatic and military strategy to rebalance the situation in Syria in America’s favor.”

What Could Go Wrong for the US in Syria? War with Russia.

Colin H. Kahl/The Washington Post

Colin Kahl lays out the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Russia this week, namely: “If the Trump administration and the Kremlin are not able to come to a meeting of the minds on Syria, it could set the two nuclear powers on a dangerous collision course.” Kahl is concerned about the possibility of mission creep and escalation that could lead to confrontation with Russia as it backs Assad, noting that several thousand Russian troops are stationed in key Syrian military bases. Yes Kahl also sees risk for Trump in limiting himself to pinprick strikes designed not to rattle Russia – which could undermine US credibility for future responses. As ever, the trick is how to advance American interests without risking WWIII.


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