Trump and Syria: the entanglement begins?

Much of the Syrian opposition and its regional backers will view US strikes as the thin end of the wedge

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After six years of conflict in Syria, Donald Trump has swept aside the longstanding attempts of his predecessor to keep the United States out of the war, launching missile strikes against a Syrian government airbase near the city of Homs last night. The attacks were retaliatory strikes for Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, possibly sarin gas, earlier this week which killed up to 100 people.

While Trump framed the strikes through a narrow proliferation lens, aimed at sending a clear message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, their impact is likely to be much more significant. Many will welcome a forceful US response to the brazen brutality of the Assad regime – and it may well serve to ensure that chemical weapons are not used again. But US intervention now risks playing out in very dangerous ways.

For those concerned about the plight of Syrians, of whom up to half a million are now dead, as well as associated Western interests in terms of radicalisation and migration flows, the impact of US strikes on this broader dynamic needs to remain the central focus.

Like Barack Obama’s proposed strikes in 2013, when Assad used sarin to devastating effect in East Ghouta, last night’s US intervention was targeted and very limited.

The US says that there will be no more immediate measures. And, in the first instance, these narrow strikes will do little to impact on the situation on the ground. But once the US wades into a conflict it rarely succeeds in containing its ambitions – let alone those of its allies. The Syrian civil war has become an increasingly complex and internationalised civil war. The addition of more warring parties, greater armaments, and even a potential US-Russia stand-off, makes for a combustible mix.

These strikes thus risk provoking a new escalatory cycle, re-energising all parties for intensified war. This is all the more true given that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, indicated an apparent US recommitment to regime change, essentially closing the door to a quick pivot to a viable political track. While the administration says it now supports a political process to unseat the Syrian president, this essentially remains at a dead-end given Assad’s entrenched position on the ground, something that the US is not yet ready to change militarily. Nor are there are any indications whatsoever that his allies will suddenly abandon him.

For a significant number of those pushing for US intervention – both in 2013 and today – the chemical weapons issue has long been a means to a deeper end: escalating US intervention that deals with Assad. Much of the opposition and its regional backers will view US strikes as the thin edge of the wedge. Regional states already pressuring the opposition to not bend at United Nations-sponsored peace talks may now re-energise their material support for the armed opposition. Assad and his backers, while probably intent on riding out these initial US strikes with a relatively limited response, will in turn almost certainly double down on their own positions.

Much will now depend on whether or not Trump is able to hold back and transmit a clear message that the US will not take further military action, including by taking renewed US ownership of a viable political track (which, if it is going to make any progress, cannot be focused on the immediate transition question).

But Trump will face considerable pressure to deliver regime change, an outcome to which his administration’s credibility is now seemingly tied. Combined with a clear desire to differentiate himself from the perceived weakness of Obama, Trump may find it very hard to resist escalating US involvement in the conflict. With the administration placing Iran firmly in its cross-hairs since coming to power, and Moscow already responding to these initial strikes by cutting off military de-confliction channels with the US over Syria (in a manner which could also severely hamper Western efforts against the Islamic State group), the possibility of dangerous confrontation is clear.

In the end Assad’s flagrant use of chemical weapons necessitated a response. But by not linking the response to a viable broader strategy the strikes risk now inflaming the wider conflict and leaving the US vulnerable to being pulled, slowly but surely, into a new regional war. 

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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