High ex­plo­sives do not con­sti­tute a Syria pol­icy

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - Copy­right 2018, Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers group

WASH­ING­TON — “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished” may be the most fa­mous pres­i­den­tial words never ac­tu­ally ut­tered by a pres­i­dent. I know be­cause, as head of pres­i­den­tial speech­writ­ing at the time, I didn’t write them. They were found on a ban­ner, but never in a sin­gle draft of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s 2003 re­marks aboard the USS Lin­coln.

But now that this phrase has been tweeted and de­fended by Pres­i­dent Trump, it is worth ex­am­in­ing what he has ac­com­plished by his mis­sile strikes in Syria.

High ex­plo­sives do not con­sti­tute a Syria pol­icy, which has been lack­ing across two ad­min­is­tra­tions. So it might be more use­ful to ask a nar­rower ques­tion: What prin­ci­ple is Amer­ica try­ing to en­force?

Trump seems com­mit­ted to the norm that chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks against civil­ians should bring ki­netic con­se­quences. That is su­pe­rior to Pres­i­dent Obama’s ver­sion, in which chem­i­cal at­tacks brought only un­en­forced threats. Trump’s care­fully cal­i­brated ap­pli­ca­tion of Tom­a­hawks eas­ily clears his pre­de­ces­sor’s bar, which was barely off the floor.

Trump’s po­si­tion, how­ever, has its own share of in­con­sis­ten­cies. It pri­or­i­tizes the lives of chil­dren killed by a nerve agent above the lives of chil­dren killed by a bar­rel bomb. Tar­get­ing civil­ians

— through ter­ror bomb­ing, forced star­va­tion, tor­ture and the re­peated use of chem­i­cal weapons — has been an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of Bashar As­sad’s strat­egy in the Syr­ian civil war. His aim has not merely been to re­claim ter­ri­tory from the rebels; it has been to ter­rify the Syr­ian peo­ple into sub­mis­sion or flight. And, with the help of Rus­sia and Iran, he has largely suc­ceeded.

There is a fur­ther in­con­sis­tency. The im­ages of chil­dren af­ter a chem­i­cal weapons at­tack seem to move the pres­i­dent. The im­ages of 5 mil­lion refugee chil­dren — many out of school, many trau­ma­tized by vi­o­lence and loss — seem to lack that power. So far this year, Amer­ica has taken 11 — yes, 11 — Syr­ian refugees. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, ap­par­ently, will avenge the deaths of Syr­ian chil­dren, but not wel­come them.

In spite of all this, it can be ar­gued that the norm pro­hibit­ing the use of chem­i­cal weapons is a spe­cial one. In a world where wars of­ten in­volve crim­i­nal bar­bar­ity, it is use­ful to place at least one act be­yond the pale.

But this should not be mis­taken for the de­ter­rence of fu­ture chem­i­cal at­tacks. Hit­ting a few sites with per­haps 100 mis­siles may re­duce As­sad’s ca­pa­bil­ity to make more so­phis­ti­cated chem­i­cal weapons. But the chem­i­cal at­tack on Douma was fairly prim­i­tive. The coali­tion strike prob­a­bly did not de­prive As­sad of the abil­ity to re­peat this kind of tac­tic. And As­sad still has a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive to do so, since press re­ports in­di­cate that it was the chem­i­cal at­tack that fi­nally broke the spirit of re­sisters in Douma.

Trump’s stan­dard — that a dic­ta­tor can in­dis­crim­i­nately kill his peo­ple as long as he doesn’t use chem­i­cal weapons — is nearly lost in the over­ar­ch­ing les­son of the Syr­ian con­flict. As­sad has es­tab­lished his own in­ter­na­tional norm: If you make war on your own peo­ple — if you kill enough of them, bru­tal­ize enough of them and dis­place enough of them — the world will let you stay in power.

Here is the norm that Amer­ica might have de­fended: Mass atroc­i­ties against civil­ians as a method of war­fare won’t be al­lowed to suc­ceed. This would in­volve not only pun­ish­ing the use of chem­i­cal weapons as a tac­tic, but also mak­ing sure that the use of chem­i­cal weapons and other vi­o­lence di­rected at civil­ians fails as a strat­egy.

The last two ad­min­is­tra­tions have placed their main em­pha­sis on two goals — de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State and op­pos­ing the use of chem­i­cal weapons — for a rea­son. In the chaos that once was Syria, Obama and Trump have wanted to de­fine Amer­ica’s mis­sion in ways that are dis­crete, lim­ited and achiev­able. Both men can claim credit in the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State — not a triv­ial mat­ter. One of them has, at least, main­tained the pre­tense of an in­ter­na­tional norm on chem­i­cal weapons.

In the real world, how­ever, bat­tles are not won by lim­it­ing your ob­jec­tives. The out­come in Syria that would have best served Amer­i­can val­ues and in­ter­ests? A well-armed coali­tion of mod­er­ate rebels forc­ing the regime to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, re­sult­ing in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment that in­cludes some regime el­e­ments but not As­sad. Af­ter sev­eral wasted years of in­de­ci­sion and in­dif­fer­ence, this is a dis­tant, per­haps im­pos­si­ble, dream. But it is the only re­sult that would have re-es­tab­lished the norm that mur­der­ing in­no­cents as part of a mil­i­tary strat­egy won’t be al­lowed to pre­vail. This mis­sion was never even at­tempted.

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