President Trump has at least temporarily reversed his policy toward Syria’s Assad regime. A few days ago the administration announced that regime change in Syria was not on its agenda, destroying the Islamic State group was. Then Trump watched gut-wrenching video clips of Syrian babies frothing at the mouth and dying from a chemical weapons attack. He changed his mind and ordered a major cruise missile attack on the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was launched.
At this very early stage, what preliminary lessons can we draw?
First, Trump, who reportedly watches television day and night, is unlike most leaders sensitive to visual images at the strategic level. In response to gut-wrenching scenes of dying babies, he can, in the blink of an eye, reverse U.S. policy toward the Middle East and Russia. In politically correct language, he can be “flexible” (his term) and pragmatic. And he can be calculating in projecting power with the aim of intimidating: Note that he did not target Bashar al-Assad in the presidential palace in Damascus and that he notified Russia and Israel in advance.
Trump frequently shoots from the hip after watching Fox News. But Thursday night he listened to sound advice.
Even if Trump takes no additional steps against the Assad regime and the Syrian army and falls back on the strategy of targeting only IS, every contentious leader he has to deal with has been put on notice. If I were Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, or even Benjamin Netanyahu, I would be very concerned lest some truly monstrous incident that takes place on my watch is seen by Trump. Needless to say, it seems that every atrocity these days is captured on CCTV or on asmartphone.
But 59 cruise missiles destroying a Syrian air base do not constitute a strategy.
Trump remains indifferent to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians murdered by the Assad regime since 2011 and hostile to the millions of refugees that massacre has engendered. Assuming no new miscalculation by Assad or Putin, Trump will continue to be cautious about escalating U.S. involvement in Syria. Further, having put Putin on notice that he is not a paper tiger, and assuming no genuine smoking gun is found that links Putin blatantly to Trump’s election, Trump will still eventually look for ways to coordinate globally with the Russians.
Russia’s response to the U.S. attack is to cancel tactical coordination in the air over Syria. That obstacle can and will presumably be managed by Moscow and Washington. Putin is also almost certainly furious with Assad for embarrassing him with the Idlib chemical attack (despite both of their denials), and accordingly will now give more serious thought to regime change in Damascus.
Assad’s response will presumably be to avoid additional massacres for a few weeks. That has been the pattern for six years. Since he has survival smarts, Assad will recognize that he miscalculated regarding Trump and Putin. But since he still has a war to win and at least for a while has to avoid intimidating through mass murder, this could mean yet deeper Russian and Iranian military involvement in Syria. Neither Israel nor its clandestine Sunni Arab partners will like this.
On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been let off the hook. The Idlib chemical attack generated a lot of soul-searching in Israel about the moral obligations of the Jewish people. Israelis just witnessed the slaughter of their neighbors by a gas, Sarin, developed by the Nazis in World War II. The Passover holiday of Jewish liberation is just days away, and Holocaust Memorial Day weeks away. The likelihood that Assad will vent his frustrations with an attack on Israel is very low. Every rational regional and global calculation constrained Netanyahu under these circumstances to not get involved, which he has done wisely and successfully for six years. Yet every moral Jewish value dictated that Israel should have been the country to mount this attack.
To return to Trump and sum up things, the president’s behavior Thursday night was capricious at the personal level, but measured at the strategic level. He is still not a strategic thinker. He would be well advised not to simply copy/paste last night’s attack on Syria when dealing with North Korea.
But he just got something right. He is absolutely justified in forcing us to recognize that then-President Obama should have done this when Syrian chemical weapons first generated an international crisis, back in 2013.
Yossi Alpher served in the Mossad and as the director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center For Strategic Studies. His latest books are “Periphery: Israel’s Search For Middle East Allies,” and “No End Of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.”