Widgets Magazine


In Syria, we have no good options

President Trump’s missile strike against a Syrian airfield achieved something that no other action from the young administration has done so far: it received widespread support from not only the general public, but also from both sides of the political aisle. The horrible news out of Khan Sheikhoun, a town in north-west Syria where dozens had been murdered and hundreds more injured by a sarin gas attack, prompted a dramatic reversal from a president who ran on an “America First” policy of non-intervention in the Middle East. Still, politicians on both the left and right — including Mr. Trump’s 2016 foe, Hillary Clinton — praised the strike as a show of intolerance of and strength against a regime that would use chemical weapons against its own people.

Two weeks removed, the dust has settled, the media have quieted down, and we’re left to soberly examine the Trump administration’s actions and its options going forward.

Like many Americans, I don’t disagree with Mr. Trump’s decision, and I’ll admit that when I heard the news that two destroyers in the Mediterranean had launched fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield, I was satisfied — obviously disheartened that we have gotten to this point, but satisfied nonetheless. Assad is a brutal dictator who has wielded the power of the Syrian military to oppress the Syrian people, who has resorted to violence to maintain control and who, frankly, has forfeited his right to lead. Though the United States cannot be the world’s policeman and intervene whenever injustices occur, as the most powerful country in the world, it has a responsibility to combat these injustices when they grow grave enough. When it abdicates that responsibility, terrible consequences can result: look no further than the Rwandan genocide for proof of what happens when America leads from behind. The ongoing situation in Syria is so horrific that even Donald Trump, a man only a few months removed from criticizing his Democratic rival’s propensity for foreign intervention, now understands that the United States must take an active role in preventing further atrocities from occurring.

Yet Mr. Trump is faced with a paradox. Assad must go, that much is clear. But the last decade has made evident that regime change often comes with nasty side effects. As terrible as they may be, dictators often fight the same radical terror groups as the United States, and when they lose power, those groups seize control. Complicating matters in the Syrian situation is the close relationship between Assad and the Kremlin; aside from potentially worsening the terror situation in the Middle East, ousting Assad could significantly damage our relationship with Russia.

Assad’s treatment of the Syrian people mirrors the injustices that Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi perpetrated against the Iraqi and Libyan people, respectively. In both situations, the United States took military action to remove both leaders (there is a much larger and more controversial debate surrounding President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but I won’t get into that here). And in both situations, the United States was successful in toppling both leaders. Ridding the world of these brutal dictators certainly signaled victories against oppression and dictatorship, but the aftermath in these countries has proven that our interventions were far from successful.

The Bush administration could not create stable democratic institutions in Iraq, and with Obama’s precipitous withdrawal of American forces from the region, the country fell into mass chaos, with different insurgency groups vying for control. The situation became an utter disaster in 2014 when ISIS, a relatively new terror group at the time, seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, including the important city of Mosul, as it expanded its caliphate. Three years later, though progress has been made, ISIS is still a dominant force in Iraq. Sure, the United States ousted Hussein and ended the atrocities that he was perpetrating. In doing so, however, it created an environment in which a radical terrorist group established control and terrorized the same people the United States had tried to protect.

The results were similar in Libya. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton led the fight to remove Qaddafi from power with the admirable goal of ending his oppression of the Libyan people. The United States and its Western allies, using significant air power, successfully supported rebel forces in overthrowing and executing Qaddafi. In ending one nightmare, however, the Obama administration created another. Today, Libya is a hotbed of terrorism and anti-American sentiment, with various rebel constituencies, militias and ISIS all fighting for control. Once again, humanitarian relief and regime change have come at a high cost.

The situation in Syria sports all the warning signs. Rebels have been fighting the Assad regime for years. ISIS remains a force in the region, waiting to leverage its military might to take control if Assad falls. If President Trump decides to eliminate Assad, he will likely succeed in doing so, but will almost certainly strengthen ISIS, the same group that he has repeatedly vowed to destroy. In either case, the situation is ugly: Mr. Trump can end the humanitarian atrocities that Assad perpetrates (an honorable goal, of course), but must accept that doing so will have long-term consequences for the country and the Middle East as a whole.

Unlike the previous interventions in Iraq and Libya, a potential large-scale intervention in Syria would risk alienating Russia at a time when the Trump administration has expressed a desire for better relations. Putin has consistently supported the Assad regime, likely due to Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria, as well as a desire to fight Islamism, a goal to which Assad has also committed. Following President Trump’s missile strike against the Syrian military’s airfields, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev suggested on Facebook that the United States had unlawfully attacked the legitimate Syrian government and that a military clash with Russia may be in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, any large-scale intervention would require approval from the United Nations Security Council; as one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, Russia can veto any resolution, which it will almost certainly do with any resolution pertaining to Syrian matters. Unfortunately, this ensures that United States military action in Syria would necessarily escalate tensions with Russia and would ultimately violate international law.

Is ousting a brutal leader like Assad worth alienating Russia, violating international law and creating a volatile situation that could allow ISIS to seize control? Perhaps. No matter what the administration decides, there is simply no good option. History has judged harshly those nations that could have intervened to prevent atrocities but chose inaction instead. Yet history has also shown time and time again that intervention often creates more problems than it solves. Less than 100 days into his term, Mr. Trump faces an impossible task. No matter our politics, no matter which party we support or for whom we voted in November, we ought to wish him luck.


Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.