Did the US Hit Syria Hard Enough?
JNS.org – President Trump’s decision to attack key chemical weapons facilities in Syria raises critical questions, including whether the limited punitive missile strikes by allies America, Great Britain, and France were too mild — especially against a ruthless dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people in a civil war that has caused the deaths of over 500,000 Syrians.
In deciding how to respond to the use of chemical weapons, the United States was forced to ask itself whether the world’s largest superpower and its allies were ready to become deeply embroiled in a conflict for which there seems to be no simple solution.
While Americans typically look for immediate solutions to deal with critical problems, Middle Eastern culture often prohibits solution-first thinking. Cultural patterns at play in Syria give insights into why a brutal civil war has raged without a solution for over seven years.
The boundaries of modern-day Syria, like many of the countries in the Middle East, are Western inventions with little historical basis. The key to understanding the conflict in Syria is to acknowledge that the various religious and ethnic groups fighting for survival in modern Syria do not see themselves — first and foremost — as Syrians. Rather, they identify themselves as Sunnis, Shiites, different Christian sects, Alawites, Druze, and Kurds. And within these primary ethnic distinctions are numerous sub-groups that all too often maintain longstanding grievances towards each other.
Of these sects, the only one that has proven itself to be an ally of the United States, and worthy of American support, is the Kurdish minority residing in the northeast section of modern-day Syria. All other religious and ethnic groups with a stake in Syria, including foreign actors Turkey, Iran, and Russia, have proven that they are by no means pro-American.
In this context, it becomes easier to understand how Syrian President Bashar Assad could use chemical weapons on citizens of his own nation. From his point of view, he did not use chemical weapons against Syrians but against Sunni Muslims. Assad is an Alawite, a minority ethnic group that is marginally allied with the Shiites. Assad therefore does not view Sunnis as fellow Syrians, but rather as historic enemies who have oppressed Alawites for many centuries. Likewise, the Sunnis have historic and unsolvable grievances against the regime.
In this ethno-religious worldview, Assad’s attacks are “righting a historic wrong” done to his people by the Sunnis.
Historically, throughout the Middle East, when there has not been a single central power strong enough to enforce its will and maintain order among neighboring ethnic sects and regional actors, chaos will reign. This situation is playing out today in Syria and has often done the same throughout the Arab world, as well as in Iranian and Turkish cultures.
All too often in the Middle East, if one side loses a battle, it licks its wounds and lies in wait until it can exact revenge on those whom they see as having wronged or shamed them — even if that means waiting years to strike back. Such patterns also explain why, after more than 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, there is still no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Few options to end the Syrian conflict anytime soon seem currently viable. While one possible outcome may include dividing Syria into multiple nation-states along religious and ethnic lines, such a solution does not yet seem enforceable.
One might suggest then that America should continue striking in Syria until Assad is brought down. Yet doing so is only likely to increase chaos and invite a revenge-induced bloodbath against Assad’s fellow Alawites, which numbered approximately 2.5 million before the Syrian internal conflict. America and its allies would be blamed for such an outcome. Neither the American people nor its allies should shoulder that blame.
To stop the sectarian violence, America would need to enforce total order in Syria — a process that would be extremely costly and would ultimately take years, if it could be accomplished at all. At the moment, America and its democratic allies are not up for this thankless task.
If America and its allies cannot stop the fighting, then why have they drawn a red line and decided to strike against Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities? Why have they gotten involved in the Syrian conflict at all? The reason extends well beyond the borders of Syria.
Bashar Assad, though certainly high on the list, is not the world’s only ruthless dictator. With Assad’s use of chemical weapons, other dictators — the regimes in Iran and North Korea — are watching America like hawks. If the United States did not react forcefully to the use of chemical weapons, a clear violation of international red lines, then a powerful message would have been sent to Iran, North Korea, and other even more powerful dictators that they too could use chemical weapons against their enemies with little worry that the international community would lift a finger against them.
President Trump therefore had no choice but to attack Assad’s chemical weapons targets. At the same time, any more than a limited attack could easily drag America into the wider Syrian conflict with no possible solution or exit strategy.
If Assad gets the message and curbs any further use of weapons of mass destruction, America will likely remain on the sidelines of this brutal conflict. Yet, if Assad hasn’t been deterred by America’s response this time, the United States will have little choice but to strike again.
President Trump’s response, given the circumstances, was the right move.
Harold Rhode is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.