High Stakes in Syria – WSJ


Donald Trump

treasures nothing more than unconstrained access to the world through


So you know the President is having a bad week when his tweets come back to haunt even him, as they have with Syria. The Syrian tweets were especially damaging—to him personally and his role as Commander in Chief of the U.S. military.

After tweeting that the U.S. is planning missile strikes against Syria and its patron Russia, the twitterverse resurrected his past words mocking

Barack Obama

for “broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria.”

Mr. Trump

has little use for consistency, but the contradiction is an acute embarrassment.

By Thursday military analysts were saying that Mr.


premature public announcements of missile strikes had compromised the U.S. ability to execute a coordinated, effective response to Syrian strongman

Bashar Assad’s

likely use of chemical weapons against civilians in


Amid this confusion, the President tweeted what for him was a mea culpa: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

It is never easy to figure where Mr. Trump’s omnipresent persona connects with real policy, but Syria is the moment to make the effort. Beyond the Trump tweets lie harsh realities that need to be addressed. It’s true that

Mr. Obama’s

inaction dealt the Trump Presidency a tough hand in the Middle East, and that Mr. Trump struck the Assad forces last April with Tomahawk cruise missiles. He also allowed the Pentagon to intensify its effort to erode Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Since then, though, Mr. Trump has shown ambivalence toward the region, saying in Ohio recently that “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” His ambivalence has produced unfortunate results. The U.S. has had no identifiable policy toward Syria in a year. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have moved to consolidate a joint hegemony that would dominate Syria and Iraq and threaten Israel.

Iran’s goal, beyond extending its political dominance from Tehran to the Mediterranean, is to use Syria as a military base to station an army of Hezbollah fighters backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The target is Israel. The risk is a Middle East war that inevitably would draw in the U.S.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has interpreted U.S. ambivalence as a pretext to settle old scores against Syria’s Kurds. That undermines our influence in the region and will erode hard-won gains against Islamic State, which is dispersed but survives.

Surveying all this is

Vladimir Putin,

whose troops and irregular forces, supported by Iran, have enabled Assad to obliterate his opposition in Aleppo, Ghouta and now, with chemical weapons, Douma. This is another day at the office for the opportunistic

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Mr. Putin,

who has obtained long-term leases with Syria on the naval base in Tartus and the air base at Hmeimim.

Keeping Russia out of the Middle East was a signature U.S. achievement during the Cold War. Now Russia has platforms for threatening NATO’s southern flank, as it is already doing with active military operations across the Baltic and North Seas.

Against this backdrop, we would argue there is no need for a token strike in the next few days merely to make good on the President’s Wednesday tweet. There isn’t much utility in destroying an Assad air base or two, which Russia, Iran and Syria would regard as a small price to pay for their gains the past year.

The goal now, in an extremely difficult situation, should be for the U.S. to formulate a response that acts as a deterrent. The word “deterrent” is key. Last year’s Tomahawk strike could have been a deterrent if it had been followed up with other measures. It was not.

Messrs. Putin,

Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader

Ali Khameini

concluded it was a gesture, and they moved forward. Israel already has recognized the distinction—and the stakes. Its warplanes have been carrying out strikes repeatedly against military targets inside Syria against Iran and Hezbollah.

Despite his confusion this week, Mr. Trump has in place the basis for shaping a strategy. He says that he finally has a national security team with which he feels comfortable. Alongside Defense Secretary

Jim Mattis,

his new National Security Adviser

John Bolton

arrived Monday, and

Mike Pompeo,

whose confirmation hearings for Secretary of State began Thursday, will be on board soon.

Mr. Trump—and the United States—also has willing NATO allies in France’s

Emmanuel Macron

and the U.K.’s

Theresa May.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman

made clear his country’s commitment during his recent visit to the U.S.

Mr. Trump needs to give this team and its allies time to shape a strategy the world will recognize as a sustained commitment to deterring Russian and Iranian aggression in the region and, yes, Assad’s “animal” assaults on Syrian civilians. What is needed is a substantial degradation of the Syrian regime’s military capacity. That may well include calling Mr. Putin’s bluff on collateral Russian casualties.

Meanwhile, let the Twitter account go silent on Syria. The next public event needs to be a display of effective American leadership.

Appeared in the April 13, 2018, print edition.

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