The Empire Strikes Back

The partisan rhetoric about Syria speaks as much as anything to the deep ideological and illogical divide in American politics. President Trump and most Republican members of Congress have blasted President Obama’s handling of Syria as “weakness” and repeatedly asserting vaguely that the President was somehow to blame for the whole mess of the Syrian war and its undesirable outcome on the world stage.

To be sure, Obama–typically measured and striving for prudence–did not want to get involved in Syria. It was a classic debacle in the making. Even our limited support for anti-Assad forces has come back to haunt us as material support meant to weaken the repressive Syrian regime has ended up in the hands of ISIS, the most repellant ideological blight of the twenty-first century. But the coverage in the media towing the Trump-Republican line that the current president is “breaking” with the last belies the real, muddled history of Obama’s almost-intervention in Syria.

Let us not forget that when chemical weapons were last used in this civil war, breaking Obama’s “red line,” the president did call for a vote authorizing military action in Syria, one that never came. Instead, Russia brokered a deal to stave off American intervention in Syria, saving us from direct involvement in this quagmire and preventing us from the unenviable position of weakening the Assad regime and, as a consequence, strengthening ISIS.

Though his political opponents have spun this moment as one demonstrating Obama’s weakness, in actuality it is a testament to American strength and shows how the threat, if not promise, of American military action changed the behavior of other state actors to abide by international law.

No, it was far from an ideal outcome, but in Syria, there are no ideals.

Now, in 2017, the landscape in Syria has changed considerably. ISIS is wrecked and, hopefully, doomed. But on the other hand, the Assad regime has pulled itself back from the brink and in the past weeks, most everyone has acknowledged that that regime would remain in power whenever this horrible war was finally resolved–whether through peace talks or exhaustion.

Which is why it is so galling that Assad would authorize a chemical weapon attack now. Clearly a completely cynical demonstration of naked aggression against any domestic forces who would oppose him, it is difficult to conceive of Assad’s reasoning. The war is all but won. Why now? Part of that answer must surely be that Assad and his enabler-in-chief Putin must have believed that Trump would indeed “break” with Obama and not deliver on the previous threat of American military action.

Trump, after all, has said that Assad’s ouster is no longer in the cards and has praised Putin’s “strength,” while urging for less American engagement when our interests weren’t directly served, promising to put “America First,” in a sickening echo of the American isolationists and Nazi sympathizers who argued for keeping us out of WWII. So it seems likely that it is their perception of Trump’s weakness, not Obama’s that led to the chemical weapon attack, assuming an American president who would buy their obvious lies about the nerve agent being released by the rebels or at the very least, triggered accidentally by an attack on rebel-held positions.

Assad and Putin may also have done the math and calculated that America has nothing to gain from striking Syria now. There is little chance of dislodging Assad as a key regional ally for Putin and Iran. From a real politik stand point, there is nothing to argue in favor of American involvement now. Assad and Putin played nice through Obama’s tenure, avoiding American wrath, so they might have guessed the coast was clear for Assad to send a harsh message to his enemies without having to worry about the short-term fallout in the international community. Trump, after all, had absolutely nothing to gain by attacking now.

And that’s why I think it may have been the best thing for us to do.

Intellectually, I still lean toward Obama’s reticence, and away from involving ourselves any further in a messy–very messy–civil war. But if Obama was still in office and this attack had happened, this is clearly what he would have done. By the accounts now coming out, it appears that Trump’s team consulted with our allies and even warned the Russians, balancing out the concerns about this being merely “lashing out” by an irrational and unpredictable president out of his depth.

There are plenty of critiques to be leveled at President Trump at this hour–many point out that his sudden sympathy for the Syrian people should also lead him to reverse his policies on refugees and still others suggest a wag-the-dog distraction from Russiagate. Only history, as it unfolds in the next few days and over the course of the next several years, will be able to judge whether this action turns out to be bold or simply brash, but in this difficult hour, we may owe this wildly ineffectual president the benefit of the doubt and accept that maybe, just maybe, in response to a horrible human atrocity, the President of the United States made the difficult decision to seek justice for the innocent victims of a war crime.

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