Trump and Syria: Some Brief Observations

I’ve been trying to keep pace with the ever-burgeoning mass of opinion surrounding Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons. Partly to help me organise my own thoughts, I thought I’d set down some rough observations regarding the decision, its (possible) implications, and its significance.

To begin, there is the question of aims. As far as I can see, there remains a great deal of confusion as to what this airstrike was meant to achieve — if by “achieve”, one is referring to intended results. Put another way, it’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the strike, since there is no clear metric against which to judge success. Ostensibly, it was meant to degrade the Syrian government’s ability to launch further chemical attacks against its own people. But how? Sure, the bombing of one airfield might delay subsequent operations the regime may wish to conduct – but only for a time. It might deter Assad from using chemical weapons (again, for a time), but does little to arrest the wider carnage civilians are suffering. Unless the United States is willing to engage in a sustained campaign against the Syrian government, it isn’t possible, practically speaking, to permanently destroy that country’s ability to engage in chemical warfare.

Some commentators – even those who have praised the President’s decision – seem to be tacitly aware of this uncomfortable reality. In Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, Georgina Downer (daughter of former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer), wrote approvingly that:

Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian government air base that was decisive and strategic. It took out Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks, at least from that site. Further strikes on Syrian air bases will be necessary.

Downer, like others, seems to recognize that one US strike in isolation fails to achieve anything all that significant. This explains the addition of the words, “…at least from that site”. She knows that the destruction of one airfield will not substantively change events on the ground (which, but the way, totally undermines her contention that it was “strategic”). Hence, Downer’s rather insouciant assertion that “further strikes” will be required, lest the current attack amount to little more than a mere symbolic display of strength.

But herein lies the dilemma. Pushing for a more substantial response threatens to draw the US into very murky waters, both politically and morally. It would be an intervention of dubious legality (having been built upon what appears to be an unlawful strike – more about that anon). Moreover, it creates a precedent for Trump and the country that might see them wade into a quagmire – one from which extrication is likely to be exceedingly difficult. Long-range strikes on airbases today; ground operations tomorrow. Indeed, we have seen how previous interventions have turned out: just look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fragile non-states that the US saw fit to try and re-make. One doesn’t even need to cite those particular examples; the more “modest” effort to influence the unfolding situation in Libya from 2011 has also proved disastrous. These should serve as warnings against escalating involvement in a foreign conflict that even the subtlest of minds has trouble understanding. Such action would likely leave the US exhausted by more long years trying to win an interminable conflict where allies and enemies are in a constant state of flux.

This might appear to be a leap on my part, and there would surely be several steps in between; a steadily advancing mission is often (though not always) an incremental process. But recent history has shown that apparently minor military action does have a habit of morphing into something much more grandiose. Indeed, it seems clear to me that Trump is in danger of painting himself into a corner, thereby inviting the spectre of mission creep. I mean, in order to be consistent and comprehensive in his sudden determination to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons, a much-expanded operation is logically required. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, has publicly countenanced this very option – even going so far as to float the notion of regime change. In any case, it’s apparent that some kind of operational enlargement is simply the natural entailment of Trump’s position, and seems unavoidable if the administration is serious in wanting to rid Syria of whatever poisonous ordnance it may still possess. Otherwise, we’re back to meaningless, ineffectual symbolism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favour of foreign intervention in the Syrian civil war. I’m not suggesting that the US go the whole hog and engage in direct action against Syria. In fact,  I wasn’t even in favour of this latest foray. I’m simply pointing out the policy predicament in which the American government finds itself. Even if I did support a strike (at least in the abstract), the fact remains that the Trump administration has failed to provide a coherent or persuasive explanation for the attack, not to mention the wider aims it purports to secure. If it was an isolated operation, what good does it achieve? On the other hand, if it’s the prelude to something more expansive, how can one possibly guarantee that deeper involvement won’t simply make things worse (and sacrifice an obscene amount of blood and treasure in the process)? Some in Trump’s camp, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have tried to claim that this does not represent a change in policy, viz. Syria. But how can open intervention – an airstrike against a sovereign nation, no less – not constitute a change in policy? At the same time, we have Ambassador Haley’s already-noted remarks, which re-open the door to grand nation-building projects. These countervailing views – from within the same team – are certainly worrying, for they point to both a lack of planning and fundamental incongruities at the heart of the American government’s basic stance towards Syria.

* * *

The contradictions above are of a piece with the apparent ambiguity resident in the President’s own views on Syria. Not so long ago, during the presidential campaign, he publicly chided those who argued for greater American involvement in the conflict. When Obama failed to enforce his infamous 2013 “Red Line” in the wake of Syria’s earlier use of chemical weapons, Trump seemed to support such a decision. So, what’s changed? On any of the main explanations that have been proffered, one can only be disturbed.

Trump’s own remarks strongly implied that he was so moved by images of gassed children that he felt compelled to act. Compassion and sorrow as responses to human suffering are fine and noble sentiments, to be sure. But should such pictures – and the emotional state they evoke in a person – form the basis of so important a decision as the one Trump has recently made? Policy must be built upon a calm and rational assessment of the facts at hand. It must weigh up various consequences with sobriety and (as far as possible) a certain objectivity. Moreover, foreign policy cannot do without a hard-headed evaluation of a country’s national interest: what it is; where it lies; and how a particular action might impact it, for good or for ill. Forming such potentially far-reaching decisions as the result of deep emotional stirrings – legitimate as they may be in themselves – is the very antithesis of the above approach. In the last few years, we’ve seen how single images can stir government officials to embark on disastrous policies: think of that heart-rending photo, picturing the body of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach. That image helped encourage European governments to relax their borders further, allowing the number of asylum seekers on the continent to swell at an alarming rate. The results of such policies have been mixed disastrous, to say the least.

Some have glowingly cited this as a classic “Trumpian” move: unpredictable and abrupt, bold and decisive. They’ve praised him for so quickly re-assessing his views on Syria in light of what’s happened, and adjusting his course accordingly. I prefer a less sanguine perspective. His volte-face is not, in my opinion, the sign of a strong and decisive leader. Nor does it reflect a man whose grasp of the situation before him is sure and strong – someone who is clear-eyed about the complexities of the conflict, and is able to subtly reason through the implications of certain acts. His affectations notwithstanding, Trump’s rather mercurial ability to shift position so radically in a matter of hours suggests that he is not, in the final analysis, anchored to a coherent, consistent view of the world. The President’s decision signals, I think, his basic ideological emptiness.

Now, I realize that “ideology” is a dirty word in some circles, but I am simply using it to denote a coherent body of substantive, enduring (though not static) philosophical principles, by which a person interprets the world and makes decisions. This is precisely what Trump doesn’t possess. He is the ultimate transactional politician, focused on more pragmatics than philosophy. It’s what has led to such policy incoherence recently – not just in the field of foreign policy, but elsewhere (Trump’s approach to economics, for instance, appears to be a melange of free-market principles and nativist protectionism).

Anyone observing events in the United States might have noticed that Trump seems to formulate policy based on what might be called an indefinable nous: some exemplary, preternatural capacity to immediately discern the nub of an event, and to do what is required. Trump’s new-found determination to strike Syria appears to be borne out of such an instinct, which eludes definition: an almost impulsive act, guided not by cool rationality, or considered axioms of thought, but by pent up outrage leavened with a belief in his own exceptional abilities.

Jonah Goldberg, writing in The National Review, compared the President to the ideal “charismatic” leader in Max Weber’s three-pronged typology of authority:

Donald Trump is a charismatic political figure. I mean it [i.e., charismatic] in the sociological and political-science sense. Max Weber delineated three kinds of authority – legal, traditional and charismatic. Charismatic authority “rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed and ordained by him”.

I think this is exactly right. Trump presents himself as someone who does not need to engage in the long, arduous process of thinking through policy implications or balancing competing interests; nor does he need the safe harbour of an ideological programme to guide his thinking; he simply “knows” what needs to be done, and takes the necessary steps: clean, swift, decisive, and strong. Fixed principles are, for him, redundant, for he has in his possession an unmediated, instinctual grasp of the issues that confront him. But if this is so, how is it possible to predict what Trump might actually do in a given situation? If he cares nothing for consistency of thought – instead favouring the apparent randomness of instinct over the sobriety of prudential reflection – why should people trust his articulated views at any given moment? They appear to be chameleonic, shifting with the vagaries of Trump’s mood.

Note well: this isn’t merely hypothetical; the President’s well-publicised aversion to non-interventionism threatens to crumble as a consequence of his recent actions – actions which were based on his emotional response to a series of horrendous images. Of course, if the attack remains a “pinprick strike”, then this might be avoided. But again, Trump’s proven means of decision-making suggests that anything is possible – even actions which are diametrically opposed to earlier views – whilst the administration in general continues to sit between the two-horned dilemma of ineffective symbolism and potentially chaotic intervention.


Some commentators have contended that even if Trump’s decision to strike Syria was of dubious legality, it was done for noble purposes: to punish a barbaric regime for using banned weapons; for upholding an international, rules-based order; or for defending the weak and innocent. Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, has made precisely this argument (Georgina Downer, whom I mentioned earlier, doesn’t even bother to admit that it might have been legally ambiguous). But a strike that lacks legal sanction does not preserve international order; as the historian Daniel Larison has ably shown in The American Conservative, it completely undermines it. Trump sought neither congressional approval, nor Security Council permission. It was instead a unilateral act, founded on some very fuzzy aims.

This is really the negation of international order, suggesting that some rules can be ignored, so long as the offending party has the capacity to do it. In the case of the US, it is partly borne out of a long tradition of American exceptionalism: whereas other, more “ordinary” nations are bound by multilateral conventions and a rules-based system, the United States (so the argument goes) is not. One can’t even contend that the Assad regime’s savage attack on Syrian citizens represented a clear and present danger to the national security of the US; that at least could provide the grounds for justifying such a move. It is ironic that Donald Trump should embark on this course of action: the conceit that the US has been uniquely commissioned to act when and where it deems necessary buttresses the same projects of regime change and nation-building that he so consistently repudiated as a candidate. In any case, the recent strike simply perpetuates this belief – all the while making it easier for other states, who do not subscribe to the doctrine of American uniqueness, to act militarily without legal or international approval to secure goals they deem legitimate. As Larison has also pointed out, it is usually smaller states – those that are relatively weak and vulnerable – that are thrown to the wall first when such practices are tacitly accepted.

But maybe it’s all to the good, so long as US motives were right, and the strike results in an ultimate improvement in the course of the Syrian war. However, there is some reason to think that the operation could well have a deleterious effect on what is already a deeply fractious situation, especially if it presages an escalated campaign. This brings me back to what I was saying earlier. If the Trump administration does decide it needs to involve itself further in the conflict, it might succeed only in sowing greater chaos. No one is denying that Assad and his cronies are despicable, and strict justice would require they be dealt with mercilessly. This, of course, goes without saying. They have prosecuted the war with appalling savagery, indiscriminately levelling whole city blocks, and targeting innocent Syrian civilians with impunity. Time and again, the regime has wilfully failed to distinguish between rebel forces and non-combatants, whose only “crime” was to get caught in the crossfire.

Unfortunately, though, the morally decrepit character of the Syrian government is not the only consideration here (would that it was!). In so complex a situation, there are several other actors one must contend with. To take just one example: the delicate (though changing) balance between government forces and jihadist groups. It should be remembered that the Syrian war is not a Manichean conflict between the armies of darkness and the forces of light. Those fighting against Assad do not represent the summit of human virtue; nor are they seeking to supplant the government with a regime the approximates Western cultural mores. In many instances, such groups are themselves possessed of a surfeit of wickedness (ISIS being only the most well-known amongst them). Members of the secular opposition may be left, but they appear to be greatly diminished; the most potent rebel forces are expressly jihadist, advertising their cruel antipathy towards anything even remotely resembling freedom or tolerance. Any action that has the potential to bolster their position – even inadvertently or indirectly – should be considered only with the greatest of reluctance.

As such, weakening the Assad regime’s military standing may be what justice demands – but it also threatens to degrade the only force in Syria capable of checking the growing dominance of violent Islamic supremacism. Sure, one strike may not tip the balance decisively (though given Trump’s famed unpredictability, not to mention the fillip the strike has given to American interventionists, this cannot be guaranteed). But is it wise to attack the primary bulwark against jihadism in Syria? Is it prudent to then openly discuss its removal in another act of regime change? Would the United States be prepared to try and manage the consequences of such an act – consequences that would doubtless see the creation of a power vacuum, to be filled with equally unsavoury actors? It should be noted that for all its nauseating barbarity, the Syrian government isn’t committed to exporting bloodshed and oppression elsewhere. The same cannot be said of groups like ISIS, whose international success depends partly on its ability to maintain territory in Syria (and Iraq). Not only is it guilty of gross abuses of human rights in the Greater Middle East; it also seeks to create beachheads for its own brand of Islamic jihadism in other countries around the world. Targeting Assad, then, provides space for a brutal ideology with global designs. Noble intentions notwithstanding, it is not what I would call a “strategic” decision.


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