President Trump’s missile strike in Syria appears to be a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria’s five-year-old civil war. This military response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is the first time U.S. forces have directly attacked the regime and sharply contrasts with former president Barack Obama’s hesitance to do so in 2013. Indeed, despite his own opposition to a military strike back then, Trump now blames his predecessor’s timidity for Assad’s brutality.
While the style and delivery is different, Trump’s strike has much more in common with Obama’s approach to Syria than he thinks. As I argue in my recent book, this is the latest in a long line of piecemeal — and mostly symbolic — American interventions in the conflict that have done more to escalate the war than bring it to a close.
U.S. policy toward Syria since 2011
U.S. policy has been reactive rather than strategic since Syria’s uprising began in 2011. Although many inside the D.C. Beltway lament his lack of action, Obama actually intervened against Assad frequently. He deployed sanctions, called for Assad to step aside, warned him against using chemical weapons and armed rebel forces. But Obama was skeptical that the United States would be able to resolve the conflict.
Obama recognized that the United States needed to retrench from the Middle East. He was instinctively against military-led regime change — a position reinforced by the chaos in post-intervention Libya. Obama remained unconvinced that Syrians rebels — many of whom were Islamist militants — could prevent a similar descent into anarchy post-Assad. For these reasons, he halted several plans to increase U.S. involvement and stepped back from his own proposed missile strike in September 2013, accepting a Russian disarmament deal instead.
Obama’s Syria policy was thus contradictory: His realist instincts urged caution. Yet he frequently succumbed to pressure from domestic critics and foreign allies to be seen to be doing something. Obama’s anti-Assad escalations came in direct response to regime atrocities, rather than as part of a concerted effort to topple him. In summer 2012, Obama rejected a plan to arm the rebels, only to relent in June 2013 when allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Assad surfaced. Did Obama actually think arming rebels at this later stage enhanced their chances, or was it just the next logical escalation to publicly illustrate his displeasure with Assad?
Symbolic actions and unintended consequences
Whatever Obama’s intentions, his piecemeal escalations dramatically affected the Syrian civil war. Past studies of civil wars have shown how support and even the expectation of support from a foreign power encourage violent escalation. This clearly occurred in Syria, with multiple powers — notably Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — joining the United States in shaping the conflict. One such example was Obama calling for Assad to stand down in 2011. Turkey and Qatar took this to mean that U.S. military intervention was forthcoming and encouraged the armed uprising against Assad.
At the same time, Obama’s statement helped reinforce Iran’s and Russia’s loyalty to Assad, seeing him as a line of defense against U.S. aggression. But in reality, Obama and his team thought that Assad was going to fall anyway and called for his departure to be on “the right side of history” rather than as the first step in regime change. Despite Obama’s reluctance about further involvement in the Middle East, Washington’s allies and enemies still believed the president’s hawkish rhetoric and expected action. When it never came, it angered the former and emboldened the latter.
Still no strategy to end Syria’s civil war
Obama used more cautious rhetoric about Syria in his final years in office. Trump may have to learn the same lesson. Despite a few mixed messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it seems unlikely that Washington is about to seek to topple Assad, ditching its Syria policy that puts fighting the Islamic State first. There does not seem to be a renewed diplomatic effort to use the threat of future strikes to force Damascus and its allies into peace talks.
The more optimistic analysts suggest that Trump’s main goal for this strike was to preserve the international norm against using chemical weapons and deter such future regime attacks. The more cynical suggest that this was primarily domestic: yet another way to skewer Obama by appearing decisive and strong against Assad. A combination seems most likely, yet both actually reflect a continuation of Obama’s approach to Syria: short-term symbolic reaction to events rather than a concerted strategy to end the war.
Like Obama, Trump will find that such actions are rarely interpreted as merely symbolic. Assad’s opponents will be buoyed by the prospect of a U.S. president finally willing to deploy force against the regime. Turkey has already resurrected its calls for a no-fly zone, while the leader of a prominent Syrian opposition group said he hopes this will be the first strike of many.
U.S. strike raises international expectations
As Trump now implies that chemical weapons usage is the route to U.S. intervention, it would be unsurprising for the opposition and their international allies to highlight further claims, as they did in the months after Obama first declared his “red line.” In contrast, Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, will most likely double down on the regime, as they did when Obama first called for Assad’s departure. Moscow already announced it will be strengthening Syria’s air defenses. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed of the strike beforehand, he may yet counter-escalate against the United States in some form.
The same structural concerns that held back Obama remain for Trump: the dangers of mission creep and quagmire — and the risks of post-Assad anarchy. His strike may have raised expectations without reducing the risks.
Trump styles himself as the anti-Obama. However, if his Syria policy is to be short-term, reactive and primarily symbolic without any clear strategy to ultimately solve the crisis, it will be more a continuation of his predecessor’s actions than the radical departure he claims.
Christopher Phillips is a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East” and co-curator of the “Syria: Story of a Conflict” exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London (April 27-Sept. 3, 2017).