The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s missile ‘message’ only deepens the U.S.’s Syria conundrum

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

The Trump administration has been basking in the afterglow of the first direct American strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — but the buzz is wearing off.

After weeks of negative headlines and record-low approval ratings, President Trump cut through the gloom with the roar of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched at a Syrian airfield in the early hours of Friday. The mainstream cable media that Trump has so roundly criticized ran fawning reports, hailing Trump's decisiveness amid endless footage of the missiles blasting off into the Mediterranean night.

Pundits applauded the symbolism of the strike against Assad, whose regime has for years slaughtered its citizens with impunity. Others suggested the act would send a “message” both to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has shielded the regime from chemical weapons accusations multiple times, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was dining with Trump in Florida at the time.

Four things to know about the U.S. airstrikes against Syria (Video: Amanda Erickson, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: HANDOUT/The Washington Post)

“The subtext was unmistakable: Get serious about North Korea; our recent threats were not idle,” declared the neoconservative magazine The American Interest. “Don Corleone himself couldn’t have set a better table.”

“We have in just a few days reasserted statesmanship in a way that has been lacking for almost a decade,” boasted Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka on Fox News over the weekend. “Diplomacy, words, treaties, they mean nothing. If there isn't force to back it up. With just one strike that message was sent to all these people.”

Gorka's bluster will be put to the test in the coming weeks and months, and the initial signs aren't great. If Assad got the “message,” he's trying his best to show he doesn't care. Syrian warplanes resumed bombing rebel targets within 24 hours of the American strike, launching sorties from the same airfield the United States had hit.

“The American strikes did nothing for us. They can still commit massacres at any time,” said a resident from Khan Sheikhoun, the Syrian town struck by chemical weapons last week, to my colleagues. “No one here can sleep properly; people are really afraid.”

Entering a war with a righteous cause is a time-honored way for leaders everywhere to rally flagging public support for their rule. But Trump's priority has always been defeating the Islamic State, not removing Assad, whom Trump defended on the campaign trail as a terror-fighting Arab strongman. And keeping to that stance may be challenging.

American allies and opponents of the Syrian regime are now urging the United States to go further in the fight against Assad. “If this intervention is limited only to an air base, if it does not continue and if we don’t remove the regime from heading Syria, then this would remain a cosmetic intervention,” said Turkey's foreign minister, Mesut Cavusoglu.

Some domestic supporters of the strike were similarly cautious. “This is better than doing nothing. This is a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a foreign policy hawk, to my colleague Josh Rogin. “Does it change [Assad's] behavior? We don’t know yet if this attack will work or not.”

“Bringing peace to Syria will undoubtedly necessitate a further strengthening of the U.S. posture toward the Syrian situation and toward Russia, Iran and other involved states,” wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a staunch critic of the Obama administration's perceived inaction against Assad. “More military strikes and other assertive acts of diplomacy will be inevitable.”

Over the weekend, administration officials seemed to disagree on the path ahead.

“We’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people,” said Nikki Haley, Trump's envoy to the United Nations, during a Sunday appearance on CNN. “And clearly, Assad is not that person.”

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, scheduled for what must now be an awkward trip to Moscow this week, toed a different line. He kept regime change firmly on the back burner, stating on CBS that the U.S. goal is to “navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people in fact will determine Bashar al-Assad's fate and his legitimacy.” When pressed about Assad's apparent war crimes against his own people, Tillerson seemed to demur.

Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and senators of both parties on April 9 discussed the U.S. strategy in Syria. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

“It's important that we keep our priorities straight, and we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS,” he replied, using another name for the Islamic State. “Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria.”

Between that confusion, the general unpredictability of the Trump White House and an understaffed American foreign policy apparatus, some analysts worry that the U.S. strike is a dangerous escalation with no coherent strategy behind it.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has studied the United States' history of “limited strikes” for years, argued that “the majority of the time, they either fully or partially achieve their military objectives of destroying things and killing people. However, they rarely achieve their political objectives of deterring a foreign government or armed group from doing something, or compelling them from stopping an ongoing activity.”

“There is simply no way,” wrote Zenko, that the White House “has adequately thought through what’s next, nor will be able to apply the attacks to a renewed and synchronized strategy for Syria.”

Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, suggests that Syria policy has been outsourced to the military men in Trump's cabinet, which may pose a tremendous risk: “Not deliberate warmongering, but an accidental escalation that his generals encourage, and that the ultimate decider has no idea how to stop.”

“Given his bombast, his inconsistency, and his preference for gut instinct over policy knowledge, he always seemed likely to be a dangerous wartime President,” wrote the New Yorker's Steve Coll about Trump. “The worry now is that he will also be an ambitious one.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.