As I blogged yesterday, the claim that Assad ordered a chemical attack on his own people in the past week doesn’t pass my sniff test. For Assad to order a gas attack now – while his side is finally winning – he would have to be willing to risk his life and his regime for no real military advantage. I’m not buying that.
But let’s say the world believes Assad or a rogue general under his command gassed his own people. What’s an American President to do? If Trump does nothing, he appears weak, and it invites mischief from other countries. But if he launches 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military air base base within a few days, which he did, the U.S. gets several benefits at low cost:
1. President Trump just solved for the allegation that he is Putin’s puppet. He doesn’t look like Putin’s puppet today. And that was Trump’s biggest problem, which made it America’s problem too. No one wants a president who is under a cloud of suspicion about Russian influence.
2. President Trump solved (partly) for the allegation that he is incompetent. You can hate this military action, but even Trump’s critics will call it measured and rational. Like it or not, President Trump’s credibility is likely to rise because of this, if not his popularity. Successful military action does that for presidents.
3. President Trump just set the table for his conversations with China about North Korea. Does China doubt Trump will take care of the problem in China’s own backyard if they don’t take care of it themselves? That negotiation just got easier.
4. Iran might be feeling a bit more flexible when it’s time to talk about their nuclear program.
5. Trump’s plan of a Syrian Safe Zone requires dominating the Syrian Air Force for security. That just got easier.
6. After ISIS is sufficiently beaten-back, the Syrian government will need to negotiate with the remaining entities in Syria to form a lasting peace of some sort that keeps would-be refugees in place. Syria’s government just got more flexible. It probably wants to keep the rest of its military.
7. Israel is safer whenever an adversary’s air power is degraded.
On the risk side of the equation, we have the possibility of getting into war with Russia. I’d put those odds at roughly zero in this case because obviously the U.S. warned Russia about the attack. That means we knew their reaction before we attacked. And it was a measured response of the type Putin probably respects. I expect Russia to complain a lot but continue to partner with the U.S. against ISIS.
If it turns out that the sarin gas attack that sparked this military action didn’t come from Assad, it doesn’t much matter. President Trump will bank all of the benefits above even if the attack turns out to be a hoax. We know Assad had some chemical weapons at one point, and probably used them. No one will be crying for Assad if the attack was unnecessary. And realistically, the public will never be 100% sure who was behind the attack.
I doubt this is the first step in a larger plan for war to depose Assad. But if Assad thinks it might be, we have a stronger position over there.
I’m not pro-war, so this military action alarms me the same way it alarms most people. But objectively speaking, the risk-reward ratio for this attack on Syria’s air field was exceptionally good. You rarely see so many benefits arise from one limited military action.
I thought President Trump would hold off on military action in the service of regime change. That still seems to be the case. But once our intelligence services traced the plane that allegedly dropped the gas back to a specific air base, it opened the option that Trump took. I didn’t realize that our military knows what every aircraft in Syria is doing at all times. That’s impressive, bordering on hard-to-believe.
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