Donald Trump’s threat of another missile attack—or any attack—on Syria cannot improve the rebels’ position on the ground, affect use of chemical weapons, change Russia’s and Iran’s policies, or alter Bashar al-Assad’s tenure. A US attack may make Trump feel like a commander-in-chief at a time when his own rule is endangered, but it can backfire in multiple ways, not least a direct clash with Russia. The administration needs to work through the UN and US allies, provide a convincing report on the latest chemical weapons attack, and take appropriate collective action—including economic and political sanctions—to punish the responsible party or parties.
The human interest in Syria must be the highest priority. Simply put, it is: stop the killing, save the children. We are long past the time when overthrowing Assad was a possibility, just as we are long past the time when a US commitment to full-out war in Syria—the only way to get regime change—was even thinkable. But the time is not yet past when arrangements with Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers can be made to allow all those who still wish to leave Syria to do so—and with assurances that their refugee status will be honored and funded.
At this point, US leverage in Syria is very limited. Two other ideas that may have a chance to work have been proposed by Ambassador James Dobbins and Jeffrey Martini. They argue that “The absolute minimum condition compatible with America’s honor and credibility is to help its Kurdish allies negotiate an arrangement with the Damascus regime (and with Turkey) that affords them some degree of political autonomy and allows them to continue to secure their population in the east of the country.” Dobbins and Martini also believe Assad would be amenable to an agreement on withdrawal of all foreign militias now in Syria. Such an agreement should cover no further Israeli air attacks.
Trump was right to say he wanted US withdrawal from Syria. It has been an expensive and largely fruitless intervention—as usual, without Congressional authorization—even though ISIS has been badly hurt. Launching missiles, insulting Assad, and threatening Russia reflect animus, not strategic thinking. They ensure the further destruction of the country and a widening of the war. Protect innocent civilians, gain the removal from Syria of as many occupying forces as possible, let Assad learn what it means to be dependent on Russia—these are all that is left of a Syria policy.