Buck Sexton: Trump’s Syria strike hit the mark, but escalation looms

Buck Sexton: Trump’s Syria strike hit the mark, but escalation looms
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At this stage, President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE’s military action in Syria has achieved its objectives. In a joint aerial assault with French and British military support, American planes and cruise missiles annihilated three targets associated with Assad’s chemical weapons program.

The red line in Syria has been enforced. For the second time, the Trump administration has made good on Obama’s abandoned promise to hold Assad accountable for chemical weapons usage. There are limits to what the civilized world can turn a blind eye to in even the most brutal civil wars, and nerve gas attacks cross that threshold.  

Trump’s latest salvo at Assad's military assets comes with the additional benefit of sending a message to rogue regimes around the world — notably Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The explosions outside Damascus and in the vicinity of Homs were a reminder to dictators and autocracies that the United States and its allies will take action if international norms are grossly violated. 

But messaging with missiles has risks. We don’t know how any of our adversaries on the ground in Syria will respond, and there are many ways that retaliation could create a cycle of escalation. 

Russian officials have already warned of “consequences.” This could be bluster, though there are some obvious ways the Russians could raise the stakes for any additional U.S. action against Assad in Syria. Sending S-300 surface-to-air missiles, for examples, would raise tensions for the ongoing U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State as well as for Israeli air operations nearby. 

The Russians could also retaliate quietly. The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is one point of vulnerability they could exploit. There have been reports stretching back for years now of direct Russian aid to the Taliban. If the Kremlin wanted to, it would not be difficult to arm and equip the Taliban to pose an even greater threat to U.S. troops and our allies in Afghanistan. And they could do so with enough plausible deniability to blunt a concerted international response. 

The more immediate concern for the U.S. is likely to be how Assad responds to the strike on his facilities. The 2013 gas attack in Ghouta led to an international outcry, and there has not been a similarly large scale deployment of chemical weapons since. But after the missile strike on Assad last April, chemical weapons attacks dropped off only temporarily. The grisly scenes from Douma were only the latest incident, and Assad may well repeat them.

Given the history of incorrect assessments surrounding Assad's chemical weapons program, it’s highly uncertain that his chemical weapons capability has been eliminated. If he were to use chemical weapons again, the Pentagon response would likely be an even more widespread strike. Every time the U.S. attacks the Assad regime directly, there are unknowns about the responses from the myriad forces aligned against us, as well as unknowable impacts on the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war. 

Despite all the risks ahead, the president tweeted “Mission accomplished” after our aerial and naval armada turned some of Assad’s death factories into rubble. That may end up being correct, if Trump limits the scope of our actions against Syria to deterrence against chemical weapon attacks, and avoids the lingering specter of mission creep.

But Assad, Putin, and the Mullahs in Tehran get a vote in all of this as well. The blood-soaked, tragic history of Syria over the last 7 years tells us that the future of the conflict will frustrate the best laid plans and the most sound strategic thinking. Trump and his advisors face a challenge in Syria where avoiding catastrophe will be its own victory.  

Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of "The Buck Sexton Show.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.