In Syria, President Trump must strike and stay

In Syria, President Trump must strike and stay
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As President TrumpDonald John TrumpGingrich: Trump ‘mishandled’ Rosenstein memo on Comey Trump to gift Macron framed upholstery: report Former presidents, first ladies come together to honor Barbara Bush MORE inches closer to launching punitive military strikes against Syria for its suspected use of chemical weapons, there is concern that such action will again fall short of bringing about behavioral change in Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad, having finally neutralized the threat to his capital by gassing the rebels into submission, can afford to hunker down and wait out another momentary burst of Western outrage.

For meaningful progress to occur in Syria, including one that advances the dual U.S. objectives of precluding the reemergence of ISIS and rolling back Iran’s entrenchment, Trump needs to strike and stay.  

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The sense among many in Washington and the Middle East is that “we’ve seen this play before.” The United States carried out punitive military action almost exactly a year ago, when the Syrian government gassed its people. It was arguably an improvement over President Obama’s famous failure to back up his own “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, damaging U.S. credibility in the process. Still, it failed in achieving any lasting results.

 

Since then, Assad is believed to have used chemical weapons at least six times — a total of eight times since President Trump took office — and at least two dozen times since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. In fact, the use of chlorine, an industrial substance that is deadly when weaponized, has become fairly common on the Syrian battlefield. Yet, it rarely results in documented mass civilian casualties that capture Western attention.

President Trump has an opportunity to do more than just launch a feel-good, yet ultimately inadequate, bombing campaign. To start, meaningful military action would need to go beyond a repeat of the “pinprick” scenario when the United States launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against a singular Syrian air base. Clearly it failed to put a dent in Assad’s war machine or alter his political calculus.  

Instead, the anticipated reprisal must include a comprehensive bombing campaign, perhaps sustained over a number of days, targeting command and control centers and elite military units to knock out Assad’s entire air force — his prized possession, without which his army has limited power-projection capabilities because of severe manpower shortages.

Such action is unlikely to bring about Assad’s departure, a secondary U.S. objective at best, but by extracting a heavy price and forcing his backers in Russia and Iran to expend more blood and treasure in propping up his rule, it would serve as a deterrent against the future use of chemical weapons. Iran, in particular, is increasingly vulnerable, given the accelerating deterioration of its economy and continuing, if sporadic, public unrest.

But more importantly, to achieve stated longer-term U.S. objectives, military action must be part of a more comprehensive and sustained approach. The president’s national security team presented him with such a strategy earlier this year, one that maintains about 2,000 U.S. special operators and advisers in northeastern Syria for the primary purpose of preventing the return of ISIS. It has the added benefit of draining the Assad government, and by extension its Iranian patrons, of billions in much-needed dollars by holding on to most of Syria’s oil fields, its agricultural breadbasket and the strategically important Euphrates River dam.

Since then, however, President Trump publicly considered ditching this approach in favor of full withdrawal, complaining that U.S. allies are failing to shoulder their fair share of the burden. He requested billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and claimed the Europeans are unwilling to make meaningful military contributions.  

While such assertions may reflect the American public’s aversion to overseas entanglements, particularly in the Middle East, it remains factually inaccurate. France maintains hundreds of special operators who are repeatedly spotted on the Syrian front lines, including in active combat alongside U.S. troops. Similarly, the British have provided 1,400 military personnel to counter-ISIS operations in the region, some of whom have been photographed in Syria. This month, a British soldier died with his American counterpart from an improvised explosive device.

Meanwhile, local allies are fighting under the banner of the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” a highly capable force of 30,000 strong.

President Trump is probably right in that the Europeans could do more, especially in terms of their financial contribution to stabilization and reconstruction efforts in areas under coalition control. After all, the refugee outflow from Syria has impacted Europe disproportionately, straining its institutions and radicalizing its politics. Yet the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can go a long way toward helping to plug the financial shortfall.

Most importantly, moral outrage among European and Arab public opinion has galvanized American allies to do more, including militarily, to alleviate President Trump’s stated concerns. Assad’s cavalier use of chemical weapons presents the U.S. president with an opportunity to uphold his administration’s declared strategy, dismissing once and for all, the notion of leaving Syria — the geopolitical center of the Middle East — for ISIS, Russia and Iran to do with as they please. It is an opportunity he must seize.  

Firas Maksad is director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University.