Trump’s silence on Syria is actually a good strategy, experts say
by Leandra Bernstein
The first U.S. military action targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has raised questions about the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria going forward, including whether President Donald Trump has a plan and moreover, whether he should broadcast it publicly.
As the American public and the international community seek a clearer understanding of President Donald Trump’s path forward in Syria, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made clear on Monday that on foreign policy and military action, the president is not going to “broadcast” his strategy. When pressed by reporters about whether Trump would draw a red line on Assad’s use of barrel bombs, Spicer said that “the president is going to keep his cards close to the vest, but make no mistake he will act.”
Over the weekend, members of the administration made ambiguous statements about the next steps the U.S. will take in Syria fueling speculation of further military actions of non-actions. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley focused on removing Assad from power, saying that “regime change is inevitable,” while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized a strategy where the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) is defeated first and then the U.S. focuses on a political resolution with Assad.
While the two statements from Haley and Tillerson are not necessarily contradictory, the lack of a direct statement of strategy by the president and his team have left some people wondering if the administration has a plan, or if the Thursday military strike on the al-Shayrat air base in Syria was a one-off response to the use of chemical weapons. But for others, the fact that Trump is not broadcasting his strategy is actually giving him new opportunities to act that did not exist under the previous administration.
The administration’s silence on their approach to Syria shouldn’t come as a surprise from a president who has repeatedly said he would not telegraph his military strategy, but instead keep both American adversaries and allies on their toes. Nothing demonstrated that approach more dramatically than the decision to attack the al-Shayrat air base in Syria in response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun earlier that week. The actin marked a sharp reversal from Trump’s campaign posture of non-intervention in the conflict and essentially allowing Assad to manage affairs inside the country.
According to David Adesnik the policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, the sudden shift in the White House’s posture could create an opportunity to turn the tide in the Syrian civil war.
“If [the Trump administration] really believes they need to do something, it should be somewhat pressing because they have created an opening. Everyone is rethinking what they assumed about America’s inclination, so this is a moment to take advantage of,” Adesnik advised.
There is also the chance the administration could lose the opening it created by failing to take meaningful follow-on action. Trump now has a limited time to chart a path forward, as both the Syrian government and its allies in Russia and Iran will be watching U.S. actions very carefully. “Now they’re all going to have to figure out how they can build — or whether they want to build — a different policy, or whether those strikes were an anomaly,” Adesnik said.
While some have suggested that the initial strike against Assad foreshadows much broader U.S. intervention, previous presidents have been able to use limited military action without immediately escalating the conflict, and with varying degrees of success. President Bill Clinton advanced a doctrine of “cruise missile diplomacy,” authorizing limited Tomahawk missile strikes in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans. While the strikes did not address the root cause of each crisis point, the strikes gave the appearance of decisive White House action. In that sense, it could be possible for Trump to avoid any deeper military commitments in Syria outside of the contingent of roughly 500 U.S. special forces currently deployed to the country to train local fighters against ISIS.
While media reports have claimed that members of the Trump administration have sent out contradictory messages about the Syria strategy, both Ambassador Haley and Secretary Tillerson and the White House have continued to emphasize the importance of a political settlement with buy-in from the international community.
During the final two years of Obama’s presidency, Secretary of State John Kerry attended meeting after meeting with his Russian counterpart attempting to enforce ceasefires and set the groundwork for a political settlement. The United Nations held a series of talks in Geneva, Switzerland attempting to forge some kind of political arrangement between the Assad regime, opposition forces, and regional governments, but without an enforcement mechanism to stop the conflicting parties, those talks also collapsed.
After past failures, the Trump administration has a chance to rebuild leverage in a way that can ensure the serious participation of Assad and Russia in peace negotiations, says Jessica Ashooh, Middle East strategist at the Atlantic Council.
“The interesting thing is now with the Tomahawk attack last week, the United States has a bit of restored credibility,” she said. By enforcing the past administration’s red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, Trump sent a message to the Assad government that contrary to the past six years, his regime will now face consequences for its actions.
Additionally, she agrees that Trump’s tactic of not revealing his strategy could help advance U.S. objectives. “I think that is part of his calculation,” she said, “and I don’t think it is necessarily a bad one.”
In order to change the tide of the ongoing Syrian conflict, the most important calculation the Trump administration can make is how to increase leverage, Ashooh said, which could mean additional military strikes, tougher economic sanctions, or even the credible threat of additional military strikes.
“I think a very important move that the president could take now that would really help in creating leverage would be to go to Congress and get an authorization for the use of military force,” Ashooh stated. “Not because he would use it, but it would be a really strong signal to the Russians and to the Syrian regime that the United States government is united on the issue of Syria and the president is empowered by Congress.”
According to the White House, the Thursday strike destroyed one-fifth of Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft, and deeply damaged its fueling stations. Despite that damage, Assad’s air force was reportedly flying sorties out of the al-Shayrat air base over the weekend and carrying out conventional assaults on rebels and civilians. Sean Spicer characterized the missions from al-Shayrat as a “PR stunt,” and the Syrian government’s flouting of the American attack may underscore a need for further military action.
Valerie Szybala, the executive director of The Syria Institute in Washington, D.C. argued that the Assad regime has still not understood Trump’s message. “So far it appears that the government is escalating their attacks against civilians and acting in defiance of the message sent by the U.S., so it is quite possible that further US military action will be needed to elicit a real deterrent effect,” she said. After spending the better part of six years carrying out military strikes against the Syrian people, Szybala continued, “one night of strikes against one military facility may not be enough to get through to him.”
Given the dynamic in Syria and history of inaction by the previous administration and its international allies, it may take additional military action to create a motivating fear in the Assad government that would make his government take peace negotiations seriously, Szybala explained.
“I have never seen the Assad government react quicker or more decisively than back in 2013 when it looked like the US was going to enforce Obama’s ‘red line’ and strike Syria,” she said. “That was the only time before or since that Assad really feared consequences, since then he has felt free to bomb civilians with impunity. I genuinely do not think that anything besides the threat of military force could get his government to negotiate a real political transition in earnest.”
In his first months in office, President Trump has been plagued more than once with unsuccessful and highly controversial policy roll-outs, from the travel ban, which was challenged by multiple federal judges, to the attempted repeal of Obamacare, which did not even make it to the floor of the House for a vote. In an environment where whatever proposal the president outlines will face similar public scrutiny, the administration may be protecting itself by not announcing their plans going forward in Syria, Szybala noted, adding that “the type of confusing messaging they have done up until this point hurts them more than it helps them.”
Coming up with a strategic plan for one of the most difficult regional conflicts is not something that can be done within a week. Even members of Trump’s national security team, who have spent much of their military careers focused on Middle East strategy, like national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, will be hard-pressed to develop a strategy for one of the most complex and protracted regional crises.
For Trump, developing a strategy for the region will be an exercise in patience for a president whose style has often been impulsive and aimed at immediate results.
“It’s going to be a fascinating test of Trump as president,” Adesnik said, “because I’m not sure we’ve seen him sort of commit to anything long-term. During the campaign, he was defined by the moment and there’s no quick answers in Syria, so we’ll see the ability the administration has to think through this problem.”
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