Of course it was only a matter of time before Trump decided to flex our nation’s military might. Predictably his actions turned out to be both scary and counterproductive and predictably it happened as his poll numbers were dropping like a stone. Thursday’s launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria got most of the press. The attack was a response to a chemical weapons attack Tuesday on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, which killed dozens of people, including children. It was these images of dead children that reportedly drove Trump to order an attack on the Syrian air base. The base is believed to have been used as a launching point by the Syrian air force for that chemical weapons attack.
What got less press but was an earlier and far more deadly U.S.-led airstrike in Mosul, Iraq that reportedly killed 272 people, an attack in magnitude far greater than Syrian president Assad inflicted on his own people in this latest chemical attack. The Mosul attack killed mostly innocent civilians. At least some of the deaths were blamed on booby-trapped houses created by the Islamic State. This attack turned out to be the deadliest one inflicted by U.S.-led forces since the Iraq War.
The attack on the air base appears to be largely for show. We sensibly informed the Russians of the impending attack so we didn’t hit any of their aircraft or kill or wound any of their personnel. The Russians unsurprisingly informed Assad and apparently it was enough time for the Syrians to get most of its aircraft out of the base. 58 of the missiles hit their targets. Despite the expenditure of a reported $100M on this attack, it must not have done much damage. The Syrian government used the base for more attacks the next day.
The Syrian government denies it of course, but it instigated this chemical weapons attack. We can infer this since only Syria has chemical weapons and the aircraft to deliver them in the area. These rare chemical weapons attack caused an almost visceral reaction. Perhaps they trigger memories of World War One, which the U.S. entered a hundred years ago last week. Chemical weapons though have limited use. They rarely kill that many people, at least outside of Nazi concentration camps. Winds can quickly mitigate their damage. In short, you can’t win a war with chemical weapons alone, as the Germans discovered in World War One. Oddly, if you have to be a casualty of war, it’s one of the quicker and more humane ways to go.
The United States doesn’t seem to have a problem with more lethal conventional and unconventional weapons. At least the use of these weapons (which kill the vast majority of civilians and combatants) hasn’t been enough to wholly engage us in these conflicts. The Trump Administration though seems willing to engage our armed forces much more than the Obama Administration. It has sent thousands of U.S. forces into Syria ostensibly to keep sets of fighters apart. Those of us with longer memories recall how actions like these led us into wider unwinnable wars, with the Vietnam War being the most prominent example. More recent news reports suggest that the Trump Administration wants to move nuclear weapons into South Korea again, to counter North Korea’s recent firings of test missiles. We have an aircraft carrier off North Korea and we are talking ominously about rekindling that conflict again, in frustration perhaps to sixty years of truce but no peace between these nations.
In the short term the press seems to be cheering this missile attack. It appears to be done mostly for show, since it did little to hobble the Syrian air force. It demonstrates that compared to the so-called “feckless” Obama Administration that we are willing to engage when bad things happen. Of course like in the aftermath of the Iraq War the question then becomes: “and then what?” Are we saying we are going to solve the Syrian conflict and end the Islamic State by putting our forces onto the ground there in serious numbers? Are we going to neuter the other forces in this endeavor? How? More importantly, how through the use of force can we change hearts and minds in that region, when it proved so ineffectual in the past? That’s the only way to create a real and lasting peace.
It’s exactly these sorts of questions that kept President Obama from getting our country more engaged in these conflicts. It’s a messy business. Perhaps if we had gotten more engaged in the collapse of Libya, Islamic radicals would not be making a mess of that country. But we’ve never been very good at nation building, especially in Muslim countries. Fifteen years later we still struggle with it in Afghanistan. Doing nothing introduces problems. Doing something does the same. Most of these conflicts if they can be solved at all can only be solved through multilateral efforts, and those rarely work out well as these interests have different objectives and criteria for success.
Trump’s actions though don’t look like they are thought out at all. Apparently the attack did almost nothing to degrade Assad’s air force and his army is intact. A few days before the attack he was praising Assad and Russia for their engagement against the Islamic State. Now some pictures of children dead from Sarin gas seem to have changed his mind, at least for the moment. Curious that the pictures of starving and dead Syrian children in places like Aleppo never had this effect. Much crueler and horrific ways to die, like the barrel bomb frequently dropped by the Syrian air force that shred through people with high speed shrapnel, don’t seem to have bothered him either. In fact, social media is full of tweets from The Donald from 2013 warning Obama not to take the very actions against Syria he is now taking.
All this shows a new administration trying to live up to an image of toughness without the requisite plan to make the changes they want. In fact they are embroiled in this mess just as much as the Obama Administration was. There is no quick way to victory in this mess. In fact, no victory in the conventional sense is even possible. It’s not that these conflicts will continue forever but they are likely to rise and ebb depending on narrow advantages on the battlefield.
It’s mostly hypocrisy. A true response to these crises might be to admit more of these war-torn refugees rather than implementing the “total and complete” ban on anyone moving from these countries that he campaigned for in his campaign. Trying to save children from Sarin gas attacks so they can spend the bulk of their lives in refugee camps living in misery and squalor is to extend suffering, not end it. Look at Palestine where sixty years of occupation has turned refugee camps into de facto cities.
Progress, such as it is, will be marginal: slowly recapturing territories with Allied forces which experience suggests will be fragile unless we can inculcate civilization and rule of law in these areas again. No fly zones in Syria would do a lot to improve things there, if we can get Russia to go along. These offer little short-term payoff and don’t get us waving our flags cheering on Team USA. It’s the latter that the Trump Administration is looking for, even though it is meaningless and ineffective at solving the actual problems. The illusion of victory through ineffectual action is apparently all that can be expected these days.