A Strike Does Not a Strategy Make: Trump, Tomahawks, and the Trouble with Targeted Tools

President Donald Trump may have already missed the mark in Syria. A fortnight ago, in a process that was as perplexing as it was rapid, Trump reacted to the Assad regime’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun by inadvertently inverting the Obama administration’s approach to the Ghouta gassings in 2013. Even so, Trump has not crafted a comprehensive strategy for Syria. Nor does he seem interested in doing so, for now, as he essentially extends and amplifies Obama’s policies in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

In 2013, the Assad regime killed more than 1,000 people with sarin-loaded rockets. Having drawn the ‘Line That Shall Not Be Named’, former President Barack Obama seemingly committed (or condemned) himself to act. In a series of statements and speeches, cresting with then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s classic case for war, the Obama administration put Assad, Syrian rebels, and the world on notice. Then, Obama emerged in the Rose Garden, announced that he believed that the United States should act in Syria, but that he would seek congressional authorization—though he did not believe he required any such authorization, and had ignored Congress during the Libya campaign of 2011 and ran roughshod over its authorities in other spheres of conflict. Shortly thereafter, the Obama administration crafted and entered a face-saving “Framework for the Removal of Chemical Weapons.” While it became indispensable to the implementation of the deal, the Assad regime continued to kill at will—with or without chemical weapons.

Team Trump inverted that approach. Still settling into office, Trump’s officials basically guaranteed that they would leave bad enough alone. In mid-March, UN Ambassador Nicky Haley said that the United States would “no longer sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” On March 30, in Turkey, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “the longer-term status of [Assad] will be decided by the Syrian people.” After the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer seemed more interested in condemning the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” than Assad. Then, after a day of deliberation and briefings, Trump decided to strike: he ordered service-members on the USS Ross and the USS Porter to launch 59 Tomahawks at Sharyat airbase, from which the regime had attacked Khan Sheikhoun.

Notwithstanding those differences, Trump has not crafted a strategy that is any more comprehensive—or different—than that of his much-maligned predecessor. Indeed, like Obama, Trump has fallen into at least three traps. First, Trump has fixated on chemical weapons in Syria. Second, Trump may already be enchanted with targeted tools as substitutes for strategy. Third, he has prioritized the war against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISL, Daesh)—and, in doing so, has separated it from the struggle over Syria and other underlying problems.  

To hear Trump tell it, he “changed his mind” when he saw that Assad had gassed his own people—an act that crossed “many, many lines.” But, the Assad regime has been—to pervert an old phrase—violating ‘all the laws, but one.’ It has killed hundreds of thousands of people with weapons of amassed destruction: barrel bombs, bullets, ropes, knives, whatever. It has violated basic principles—necessity, distinction, and proportionality—frequently and flagrantly. Beyond the battlefield, it has set up human slaughterhouses, like the one in Saydnaya Prison, to starve, torture, and hang thousands of people it claims as citizens. It has displaced millions of Syrians. In addition to creating the conditions for a war that has torn apart Syrian society and strained neighbors like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, the Assad regime has also allowed Russia and Iran to increase their influence in the heart of the Middle East.

After fixating on the wrong problem, Trump tried a simple, superficial solution: Tomahawks. Tomahawks are powerful, precise, and expendable—though expensive, at anywhere from $600,000 to $1.5 million apiece. But like the gunboats of yesteryear, today’s targeted tools—Tomahawks, drones, and so on—are only as effective as the strategy that surrounds them and the commitment that accompanies their use. Former President Bill Clinton spent the 1990s launching or threatening to launch Tomahawks into Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Balkans. In the Balkans, Clinton succeeded by using those tools to complement—and, where appropriate, foreshadow or fake—broader military operations. Moreover, while NATO engaged in two Balkan campaigns during the 1990s, the United States led, organized, and integrated political, diplomatic, and military efforts to stop the carnage, forge peace, and underwrite the post-conflict transitions of the area’s states and societies. Where and when Clinton used Tomahawks to punish or deter behavior in the face of a regime fighting for survival or in the absence of a broader approach, his record was muddled (Iraq) or downright disastrous (Afghanistan and Sudan).

In addition, Trump is prioritizing the war on ISIS and separating it from the broader struggle in which it has emerged. Like Obama, Trump seems set to play drone-a-mole in the Middle East. And, like Obama, Trump will exacerbate—even as he seeks to distance himself from—his predecessor’s policy mistakes. Obama had some success, sure. Waging the war on terror under his direction, American forces decimated al-Qaeda. With planes, drones, Special Forces, and proxies, they killed terrorists and combatants in places like North Africa, East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In 2011, they killed Osama bin Laden.

But Obama never developed an effective strategy for Syria or Iraq. After vacating Iraq, mismanaging post-occupation politics in Baghdad, ignoring Syria, and deriding ISIS as the “jay-vee,” Obama’s team spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get back on the court (and, in the process, destroy millions of dollars’ worth of commandeered American equipment). Inexplicably, given how he rose in the world, Obama undervalued the power and pull of ideas, emotion, and delusions that drove men to join ISIS, instead behaving as if he could kill off or tweet down an idea without addressing the underlying grievances that gave it life. To win the war on ISIS, Obama worked actively alongside, or in tacit coordination with, Iran, Iraqi Shiite militias, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah. While that compromise would make sense if ISIS existed in some sort of vacuum, it has only amplified—and will continue to amplify—the anger that has fueled this latest batch of Sunni extremists. Worse still, the Obama approach—adopted by Trump, for now—essentially allows America’s de facto partners to increase their influence throughout Iraq and the Levant, much to the chagrin of those self-same Sunnis.

Trump’s strike in Syria was satisfying to some, sure. The dictator got his due—for a day. (Hooray?) But Trump does not have, and does not seem interested in crafting, a comprehensive strategy for Syria. He will probably continue—and indeed expand and amplify—Obama’s policies for the foreseeable future. As long as he keeps his sarin stocked, Assad may kill at will. Millions of Syrians will be born, live, and die away from home. Radicals among the rebels will continue their ascent, attracting men that could have formed part of a moderate Syrian alternative to Assad. Russia and Iran will keep propping up the Assad regime, cultivating direct lines of influence in the Levant, and filling the strategic space abandoned by successive American administrations who see the area as a sideshow. And another American president may sacrifice Syria—and the long-term interests of the United States—at the altar of an illusory achievement. If Trump turns to Syria, he may be too late.

Anthony Elghossain is a lawyer and writer based in Beirut. Follow him at @aelghossain.

Image: Photo: Donald Trump stands near U.S. President Barack Obama before being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson