International Affairs

Michael Hayden: Trump acted decisively against Syria. Now what?

Last night, we watched breathless coverage of the American cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base, the first real military action of the Trump era.

{mosads}Second- and third-order effects will, of course, be very important, and one hopes that subsequent moves and counter moves have been gamed out.


But some first order impressions are already clear.

Action. This president does not seem inclined to evaluate problems very long before acting, unlike a charge often leveled against his predecessor. His public reaction to the atrocity of the chemical attack was genuine and admirable, and his response was decisive and appropriate.

America first … but not always? The president pushed “America first” as a counter to the post-World War II American tendency to do things for “the good of the order.” Candidate Trump’s meme was that we were being played by an ungrateful global community. And yet we just conducted a unilateral military strike because Bashar Assad violated an international norm. And we did it without any formal international sanction or authorization … or help. Hmmm.

Coherent policy? Team Trump, just days before the hideous chemical attack, had signaled that they had made their peace with Assad staying in power. ISIS was the problem we were working. To be fair, that was not much more than an admission of the realities of the Obama administration’s policy, but words matter. Did this public American concession in any way suggest to Assad that he could act with impunity? And were the American statements the product of a synchronized policy process or just stray electrons from a still-forming national security apparatus?  

Whither Syria? The Russian intervention in Syria 18 months ago changed the physics of the battlefield there. Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces backed by Russian air power at first stabilized the front and then brutally expanded the regime’s control ending up by seizing the country’s largest city of Aleppo in December. The lines are pretty well set with Assad controlling the Alawite homeland and the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo axis. Regime survival has been assured. The U.S airstrike, though limited and likely a one-off event, cut into Syrian military capability and reminded the regime that its current (and hard-won) battlefield edge could be put at risk.

Dasvidaniya Rossiya? Despite all the campaign rhetoric praising Vladimir Putin and highlighting the goal of better relations with Russia, 11 weeks into his administration, President Trump just punched Moscow’s closest Arab client in the mouth. And his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, hammered Russia, as the supposed guarantor of Syria’s chemical disarmament in 2013, as “complicit or simply incompetent in preventing Syria’s chemical gas attack.” At least the U.S. warned Russian forces in the region about the deadly American incoming, but huddling elsewhere on converging interests — always a low-probability shot in my view — is now even less likely.

Hello Iran. Although candidate Trump complained mightily about the Iran nuclear deal, he never quite said he would rip it up, and instead promised to push back against aggressive Iranian activity elsewhere in the region. The Obama administration pulled its punches, holding robust American counteraction hostage to preserving the nuclear deal. Teheran will read the Syria strike as Trump being quite willing to make good on his promise.

Refugees. A man moved by the writhing bodies of Syrian children subjected to a sarin attack should also be moved by the bodies of other Syrian children washing up on Turkish beaches. Last year, 85 percent of the 10,000 Syrian refugees who entered the United States were women and children. Their vetting time ranged on average between 18 and 24 months. We know how to vet, and we should not confine our compassion to this suffering to retaliatory airstrikes.

So who moves next?

ISIS? Unlikely. We didn’t hurt Assad that much and the noose around Raqqa is tightening? They’re playing defense.

Syria? Also unlikely. Assad generally goes to ground under stress.

Russia? Maybe. They could double down on Syria to ease embarrassment (like replacing aircraft?).

The United States? It all depends on strike results and the ultimate objective. If we intended to dissuade Assad and somewhat reduce his chemical capability, we’re probably done. Unless there is further provocation, I doubt we will move off our reluctant tolerance of his vile regime.


Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags airstrikes Bashar Assad Donald Trump International relations ISIS refugees Rex Tillerson Russia Syria

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