A lim­ited mis­sion ac­com­plished in Syria

Pres­i­dent Trump is re-es­tab­lish­ing the power of de­ter­rence

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Clif­ford D. May Clif­ford D. May is pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies and a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

If you’re still un­sure about whether Pres­i­dent Trump did the right thing when he launched 59 cruise mis­siles at Syria’s Shayrat air­base last week, con­sider the al­ter­na­tive.

He knew that Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar Assad had yet again used chem­i­cal weapons to mur­der Syr­ian civil­ians, women and chil­dren prom­i­nent among them. He knew that Iran and Rus­sia had en­abled this atroc­ity, as they have many oth­ers. He knew he had two choices.

He could shrug, in­struct his U.N. am­bas­sador to de­liver a tear­ful speech call­ing on the “in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity” to do some­thing, and then go play a round of golf. Or he could demon­strate that the United States still has the power and the grit to stand up to tyrants and ter­ror­ists — thereby be­gin­ning to re-es­tab­lish Amer­ica’s de­ter­rent ca­pa­bil­ity.

In other words, this was what Sun Tzu and Carl von Clause­witz would call a no-brainer. (Well, loosely trans­lated.) A mis­sion was ac­com­plished. Do harder mis­sions lie ahead? Yes, of course. But I sus­pect Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mat­tis and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. Mc­Mas­ter have made that abun­dantly clear to the new pres­i­dent.

We now know for cer­tain that Rus­sia failed to live up to its 2013 com­mit­ment to en­sure that Mr. Assad sur­ren­dered all his il­le­gal chem­i­cal weapons un­der the deal it bro­kered. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son acer­bically ques­tioned whether that was the re­sult of com­plic­ity or in­com­pe­tence, or whether Rus­sia al­lowed it­self to be duped by Mr. Assad.

The strike or­dered by Mr. Trump was not “un­be­liev­ably small” — then-Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry’s de­scrip­tion of the pun­ish­ment Pres­i­dent Obama de­cided not to im­pose in re­sponse to Mr. Assad’s ear­lier use of chem­i­cal weapons. It was big enough to make clear that Amer­i­can diplo­mats are again car­ry­ing big sticks. (For Mr. Obama to in­sist that diplo­macy and force are al­ter­na­tives was patently ab­surd.)

Con­ve­niently, Pres­i­dent Trump was din­ing with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping when the strikes took place. It’s fair to spec­u­late that Mr. Xi is to­day think­ing harder about Amer­i­can re­quests to rein in Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dic­ta­tor whose drive to ac­quire nu­clear-tipped mis­siles that can reach the Amer­i­can main­land has be­come what Mr. Tiller­son called an “im­mi­nent” threat.

Hav­ing passed his first ma­jor na­tional se­cu­rity test, Mr. Trump is now obliged to demon­strate firm­ness and con­sis­tency. What plans might the Pen­tagon have on the shelf to re­spond to fur­ther provo­ca­tions? The next round of Tom­a­hawk mis­siles could per­ma­nently ground Mr. Assad’s air force. That would make it eas­ier to then es­tab­lish no-fly zones. If such mea­sures do not al­ter the cal­cu­la­tions of Mr. Assad and his Ira­nian and Rus­sian pa­trons, con­sid­er­a­tion could be given to lev­el­ing his de­fense, in­tel­li­gence and com­mand-and-con­trol cen­ters as well.

Another idea un­der dis­cus­sion: set­ting up safe havens or, to use a bet­ter term, “self-pro­tec­tion zones” for those flee­ing the Syr­ian regime and var­i­ous ji­hadist forces, Sunni and Shia alike. Is­rael and Jor­dan could help the in­hab­i­tants of such ar­eas ad­ja­cent to their borders de­fend them­selves. The Saudis, Emi­ratis and Bahrai­nis could con­trib­ute to the cost. Might this lead to the par­ti­tion of Syria? It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a “po­lit­i­cal solution” that would not in­clude such read­just­ments.

All this, while use­ful and per­haps even nec­es­sary, should be seen as in­suf­fi­cient. Syria is a ma­jor hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe but only one piece in a much larger geopo­lit­i­cal puz­zle. Sooner rather than later, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to de­velop what Mr. Obama re­fused to con­tem­plate: a com­pre­hen­sive and co­her­ent strat­egy to counter the bel­liger­ent, im­pe­ri­al­ist and su­prem­a­cist forces that have emerged from the Mid­dle East and are now spread­ing like kudzu around the world.

The Is­lamic State will, of course, need to be driven off the lands on which it has at­tempted to es­tab­lish a caliphate. After that, its ter­ror­ists will have to be hunted, along with those of al Qaeda, wher­ever they hide (e.g., Egypt where, over the week­end, they bombed two Cop­tic Chris­tian churches).

But — and this is cru­cial — ac­com­plish­ing these mis­sions must not serve to fur­ther em­power Iran’s ji­hadist rulers, who dream of es­tab­lish­ing an ex­pand­ing ima­mate, the Shia ver­sion of a caliphate.

Most im­me­di­ately, Congress should send to Mr. Trump the leg­is­la­tion it is now con­sid­er­ing to im­pose new sanc­tions on Iran in reprisal for its con­tin­u­ing sup­port of ter­ror­ists, its missile tests and its main­te­nance of more than 35,000 troops in Syria, in­clud­ing its own, those of its Le­banese proxy, Hezbol­lah, and Shia fight­ers re­cruited from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sus­pend­ing Iran’s deal with Boe­ing/ Air­bus would be use­ful, too. Only the will­fully cred­u­lous be­lieve that Iran’s theocrats won’t use such air­craft for il­licit mil­i­tary pur­poses.

That the United States can­not solve all the world’s prob­lems was one of Mr. Trump’s cam­paign themes. But the im­pli­ca­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily, as some of his sup­port­ers hoped, that he would turn a blind eye to all atroc­i­ties and threats not al­ready within Amer­ica’s borders.

In the last cen­tury, most Amer­i­cans rec­og­nized, in some cases with enor­mous re­luc­tance, that there was no good al­ter­na­tive to do­ing what­ever was nec­es­sary to rout the Nazis and com­mu­nists, en­e­mies whose goal was to kill off the demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment.

In this cen­tury, ji­hadists and Is­lamists har­bor the same am­bi­tion. We can at­tempt to ap­pease them. We can try to make our­selves in­of­fen­sive to them. We can keep our hand ex­tended, hop­ing that in time they will un­clench their fists. Or we can de­cide in­stead to plan for a long war that will end with the de­feat of these latest en­e­mies of Amer­ica and the rest of the civ­i­lized world. If Mr. Trump has grasped that within his first 100 days, he’s not off to such a bad start.


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