President Trump’s airstrike against Syria didn’t lead to an immediate escalation in the area, thankfully. But while the strike has fallen out of the news cycle, it bears further examination for what it reveals about the Trump administration, and for the sharp counterpoint it demonstrates between the President and his predecessor. Where every Syrian policy decision was carefully weighed and measured under Obama, to the point of frustration for many around him, Trump has taken to bombastic statements backed by ordinance and multiple stances at a single time.
The “Red Line” has become a point of attack for political opponents, with the right vehemently, and repeatedly, decrying Obama for not following through on a threat of military intervention in the case of chemical weapon attacks in Syria. In August of 2012, Obama stated that should they see large amounts of chemical weapons being used or moved around, that would change his calculations.While a dangerous situation, he felt Assad and the Syrian crisis were not imminent threats to American security, and thus had forgone involving the nation militarily. A year after making his feelings known, and laying the infamous Red Line, Obama and the White House released a statement in June 2013, confirming that Assad had ordered the use of chemical weapons at some point. But the president chose to arm Syrian rebels in an effort to depose the dictator, rather than put American soldiers on the ground. This path was a rocky one, as arms and munitions were locked in congressional concerns for over two months.
That August, the city of Damascus suffered an alleged chemical attack, with over 1400 casualties. With arms for the rebels still forced to navigate a tricky path through congress, Obama and his administration looked to wield a more direct response. Plans had been drawn up and strikes against Syrian forces awaited the president’s approval. Obama, however, felt they were skirting a dangerous line, and sought alternate paths in the hopes of avoiding dragging America into another Middle East war. He found that path in Russia, surprisingly enough.
Syria has enjoyed the backing of Putin for some time now. Ostensibly, this gives Russia a way to project in the Middle East, helping to shift the region into its sphere of influence. A region caught between Russian and American ideologies is hardly new. This competing interest would be another tangled layer for Obama and now, Trump, whenever they attempt to navigate the political landscape of the Middle East. For Obama, however, it gave him a way to pressure Assad without resorting to bombardments and missile strikes. At a G20 summit in September of 2013, Obama was able to convince Putin that, should Assad willingly relinquish his stockpile of chemical weapons, there would be no need for the U.S. to carry out military actions against the Syrian government. The same month, days later in fact, Assad announced he would do exactly that. They joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and declared their stocks of chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors and the sites that produced them. Ultimately almost 1,400 tons of chemical weapons were destroyed under U.N. supervision.
On April 6th, Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase that had been used to launch a chemical attack earlier that week, where some 89 Syrians were killed, women and children included. He chose to act immediately, well before investigators could gather evidence and eyewitness statements in an attempt to piece together just what happened. As he did so, he shifted blame for the incident to his predecessor, claiming the attack was a direct result of Obama’s failure to enforce the very red line that Trump himself urged Obama not to cross. The strike damaged the airbase, but not in any meaningful way, as it was in use later that week to continue launching conventional attacks on rebel-held locations in Syria. Syria and Russia both denounced the attack, claiming it was an unprovoked military action. Trump and his administration defended their actions, stating such a heinous action against innocent civilians could not go unpunished, though interestingly enough, they continue to insist they should be denied entry as refugees and sent back.
Obama sought options other than pure military might. Republicans played this as a mistake, decrying his ‘weakness’ and claiming he was damaging American credibility. But through diplomacy and the threat of force, he was able to secure the destruction of vast amounts of chemical agents, the destruction of which by conventional means would have cost millions of dollars and countless lives.
Trump, on the other hand, loudly proclaimed that intervention in Syria was not America’s responsibility, both during Obama’s administration, and during his campaign. He did so even after the chemical attack that spurred Obama to action. After winning the election, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, echoed this platform when he stated that Assad’s fate was in the hands of the Syrian people, days before the attack. He would further promote this platform of noninterference at a G7 summit asking why Americans should care what happened in Ukraine. Despite all evidence pointing to Trump’s insistence on leaving Syria be, he launched an ineffective missile strike days after a chemical attack, before investigators could properly determine exactly what happened, and on whose authority. He managed to inflict moderate damage to an airfield that was operational within the week, before promptly dropping the entire situation in subsequent speeches and announcements.
Obama and his administration may have changed their determination of the situation, but they did so in a deliberate way, with clear goals in mind, and even managed to achieve them. Trump, after five years of preaching the path of noninterference, reversed course within a week and launched a missile strike without an apparent purpose past destroying the air base it targetted, which it failed to do. Obama was derided for weakening American credibility for failing to follow through immediately on a threat of force, whereas Trump was lauded for acting decisively, even though it was not effective. Will it work as a deterrent? It is too early to tell. Politicians worried that nations and terrorist groups would no longer believe in American might after Obama backed away from the red line, despite his work yielding the destruction of vast stores of chemical weapons, yet no such criticism has arisen from a missile strike that accomplished little more than a delay of Syrian operations, with many praising his actions instead, ignoring what little was actually accomplished. More worrying, it is as if Trump has lost interest in the Syrian situation, instead allowing his administration to speak on it, such as when Secretary Tillerson reversed course again, stating that Assad must go, just days after insisting that was up to Syria alone. An administrative official then told CNN that this did not represent a change in their overall stance of intervention in Syria. Trump and his staff have shown they will not behave predictably or consistently, requirements for effective foreign relations. What will happen now? Nobody knows. More than that, nobody can fathom a reasonable guess. Just the way Trump likes it.
Correction: This article’s author was incorrectly stated as Tom Rich. It has been corrected to Ryan Duel. We apologize for the error.