Trump's strike on Syria put American interests first
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Last week’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase came as a surprise to many Americans. Was this a departure from campaign promises not to get involved in further Middle East wars? Some of President Trump’s most vocal and influential supporters think so and have been strongly criticizing the mission. How is this “America First,” they ask?

However, as a few days have passed, it’s become clearer that the cruise missile attack should not be seen as a deviation from previous statements by the president. While not without risk, it was an effective move and the logical extension of the more pragmatic and “realist” Middle East policy that the Trump administration has been putting in place. The reasoning is threefold.

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First of all, it is critical to remember that the strike served as a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons. There is already enough suffering in Syria as a result of mere conventional weapons. Trump has drawn a line in the sand, and clearly sent the message that any further use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

 

Of course, the level of control that President Assad or others in his chain of command have over troops beneath them remains an open question. Whatever the case, everyone in the military gets the message now. There was even one report that the pilot who launched the attack was assassinated over the weekend.

Secondly, the attack reinforced U.S. alliances in the Middle East. Traditional allies including Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were all ecstatic in supporting the move. That signaled a departure from the policies maintained under President Obama that saw traditional allies alienated, especially by Obama’s fervent desire to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. That alienation increased insecurity, especially for Saudi Arabia and Israel, as they felt the U.S. was abandoning in its traditional support for their interests.

Finally, the strike put an “art of the deal” type of pressure on Russia to deal with Iran and Syria.

Moscow became comfortable during the Obama years in the knowledge that the U.S. would not intervene in Syria. Trump put the world on alert that policy could quickly change. (It didn’t hurt that he announced the attack while eating dinner with the Premier of China.) As a result, Moscow has been incentivized to apply more pressure on the Assad regime to minimize casualties in the region. It was telling that, after the attack, a Kremlin spokesperson clarified Russia’s position in saying “support for Assad is not unconditional.”

Looking beyond the mere use of chemical weapons, the new political terrain is also likely to influence the Syrian regime to be more conciliatory in negotiations over a peace settlement in its civil war.

But it is fair to acknowledge that there are pitfalls for the U.S. to avoid. Taking on Assad, as opposed to merely fighting ISIS, would be the mistake that most Americans fear. The top experts on Syria have warned repeatedly that Assad cannot be neatly removed from power without risking a broader collapse of the rest of the regime.

So far, the Trump administration appears to understand that dynamic. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized on Sunday that this is not the beginning of a shift towards regime change in Syria. There will be calls from the most hawkish wings of U.S. foreign policy to escalate even further, but those voices do not run the administration. And in the meantime, they put subtle pressure on Russia and Syria to make reasonable concessions.

As long as the U.S. can avoid a serious entanglement, last Thursday’s strikes were an effective way to send a message to Syria and its patrons while reinforcing America’s commitment to the security of its traditional allies in the Middle East. That aligns completely with the agenda of “America first.” 

Nathan Field is the founder and former CEO of Industry Arabic, a translation company that provided services to over 300 high-profile customers throughout the Middle East. He worked for two years as a consultant in Saudi Arabia for the U.N.-sponsored Gulf War environmental remediation program. He holds a master’s in International Security from Georgetown University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.