What does Amer­ica want in Syria?

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - Chicago Tri­bune

In the early stretches of the seven-year Syr­ian civil war, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pro­claimed a clear mis­sion: Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad had to go. As­sad didn’t.

Then Obama dared As­sad to cross a U.S. red line on the use of chem­i­cal weapons in the war. As­sad did.

As­sad suf­fered no se­ri­ous con­se­quences. Obama even­tu­ally al­lowed lim­ited U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment and put faith in a bro­kered ar­range­ment by which Syria sup­pos­edly would re­lin­quish its chem­i­cal weapons. Congress never has had any stom­ach for declar­ing what this na­tion’s role in Syria’s civil war should be. As years dragged on, the war has claimed some 400,000 or more lives. Why the U.S. in­de­ci­sion?

Obama was fear­ful of draw­ing the U.S. deeper into the civil war. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump shares that fear. He has fo­cused on de­feat­ing Is­lamic State — a for­mi­da­ble task largely achieved. He is ea­ger to pull the last 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria.

This me­an­der­ing may­bewe-will-maybe-we-won’t path led to Fri­day night’s mis­sile strikes against three Syr­ian chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­i­ties. “Mis­sion ac­com­plished!” Trump tweeted af­ter Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary un­leashed more than 100 mis­siles.

Yes, this at­tack should help hob­ble As­sad’s abil­ity to drop those hor­rific weapons on his own cit­i­zens. But this episode doesn’t an­swer the over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion: What is the U.S. mis­sion in Syria now — if any? We think Amer­i­cans largely agree on two agen­das — both im­por­tant, one broad, the other nar­row:

The broader agenda is that Is­lamic State still poses some level of phys­i­cal and in­spi­ra­tional men­ace to the world. This group must be erad­i­cated. On the ground, that goal is nearly ac­com­plished, but will re­quire U.S. vig­i­lance over the next years to en­sure the group does not re­con­sti­tute it­self.

The nar­rower agenda is that the U.S. and its al­lies will de­fend in­ter­na­tional laws against chem­i­cal weapons and re­tal­i­ate against coun­tries that use them. That’s a crit­i­cal mes­sage to send, again and again if need be. No regime should feel it can gas its cit­i­zens with­out se­vere con­se­quences.

Be­yond those two points, Amer­i­can lead­ers and cit­i­zens have no con­sen­sus. Some want an iso­la­tion­ist ap­proach in which Wash­ing­ton does next to noth­ing. Oth­ers want a more mus­cu­lar ap­proach to top­ple As­sad and to keep Rus­sia and Iran from ce­ment­ing Syria into their Mideast spheres of in­flu­ence.

Rus­sia, Iran and Tur­key still largely de­ter­mine the fu­ture of Syria. Bar­ring mil­i­tary and other pres­sures that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans likely wouldn’t en­dorse, the U.S. will be a mar­ginal player.

Fri­day’s at­tack did un­der­score a com­pa­ra­ble as­sault on Syr­ian fa­cil­i­ties last April: As­sad in­vites in­creas­ingly fierce re­tal­i­a­tion if, in his zeal to crush the mil­i­tants try­ing to de­pose him, he uses chem­i­cal weapons. Fri­day’s strikes won’t sat­isfy the Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ists who think the U.S. has no in­ter­ests at stake in Syria, or the more bel­li­cose Amer­i­cans who hoped for heav­ier strikes to de­bil­i­tate As­sad’s mil­i­tary.

But af­ter seven years — first with a timid U. S. pres­i­dent and now with a con­flicted U. S. pres­i­dent — there’s no Amer­i­can agree­ment on what this na­tion should do. Ab­sent a more am­bi­tious and ef­fec­tive Syria pol­icy, oc­ca­sion­ally curb­ing As­sad’s most bru­tal ten­den­cies will have to do.

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