MS Risk Blog

Mission Accomplished? The Trump Administration’s Syria Conundrum 

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On 13 April, a joint U.S.-U.K.-French naval and air strike was launched against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons programme in retaliation for the deployment of chlorine and sarin nerve agents against innocent civilians in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on 7 April. The Trump administration subsequently framed the missile strike as, in part, a repudiation of the Obama administration’s response to a similar attack launched by the Syria regime in June 2013. In contrast to President Obama’s last minute decision to refrain from military action, the Trump administration positioned its action as resolute and decisive. Before the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared, “When our president draws a red line, our president enforces a red line.” The quote was quickly packaged into a tweet on Ms Haley’s account, retweeted by President Trump and widely disseminated from the White House podium. 

The subtext of the quote is likely that the Trump administration overcame the same obstacle that the Obama administration did not — namely, the risk of mission-creep upon entering into Syria’s quagmire. Rather than refrain from military action, the Trump administration presented itself as confronting its own red line with consistency and decisiveness. This sense of confrontation was particularly noticeable considering President Trump’s comments two weeks beforehand. On 29 March, reportedly without informing his State Department, Pentagon or national security officials, the president told a crowd in Ohio that the United States would be withdrawing from Syria, “like, very soon.” He continued, “We’ve got to get back to our country where we belong; where we want to be”, before adding, “Let other people take care of it now.” Rather than seek regime change, the Trump administration therefore undertook a pin-prick strike against minor targets related to the regime’s chemical weapons programme, all the while enforcing its red line. “Mission Accomplished”, the president would tweet the following day. 

Yet it is not entirely clear that the Trump administration has overcome the hurdle of mission-creep faced by the Obama administration in 2013. This is because a growing stake in the Syrian conflict’s trajectory not only arises from military intervention itself and its perceived consequences upon a worsening and highly uncertain conflict (as was President Obama’s concern), but from the language justifying that intervention. Here, President Trump’s condemnation of the primary stakeholders in any likely future resolution to the conflict — the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments — is particularly noticeable. President Assad is a “Gas Killing Animal”, a “Monster” and a “Butcher.” The Russian and Iranian governments, including President Putin, are “responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.” Speaking to reporters before a White House cabinet meeting, the president reiterated on 9 April that “Everybody’s going to pay a price.” Consequently, Mr Trump’s two-week old declaration that the U.S. will “Let other people take care of it now” — meaning Assad, Russia and Iran — now falls notably short of the White House’s own criteria for who should have a stake in Syria’s future. For a White House that is highly image-conscious and sensitive to accusations of weakness, these words of condemnation may incentivise a future diplomatic shift in Trump administration policy over Syria.   

Rather than overcoming President Obama’s 2013 predicament through strength of will, it is therefore possible to interpret Trump administration policy in Syria through the lens of Mr Obama’s 2013 conundrum between non-military action and potential mission-creep. The Trump administration faces the possibility of being pushed and pulled between withdrawal and greater involvement in Syria as a result of Mr Trump’s decisive remarks on both sides of this conundrum. This is not to pass comment on the legitimacy of the missile strikes on 13 April, but only to show that U.S. credibility can become attached to even pin-prick assaults. A successful, clinical strike may prove to have broader consequences further down the line for Trump administration policy in Syria.