Donald Trump has promised Syria’s bloody regime that it will pay a ‘big price’ for the chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, which left dozens dead. And many agree Bashar al-Assad should face the consequences of his appalling actions. But the United States – and the West – would do well to stop and ask themselves a question before they rush in: what are they actually hoping to achieve?
After all, the United States’ approach to Syria and its pattern of failed strategies does not inspire much confidence. The US has pursued three distinct policies in the country over the last five years: its diplomatic process was designed to lead to a post-Assad era of democracy. That failed. Its clandestine support for the Syrian rebel groups was supposed to help moderates among them gain power. That failed, too. Since 2015, the US has had more luck, pouring resources into fighting Isis alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish group of fighters in eastern Syria. But this success has been achieved in taking on Isis, rather than doing anything about Assad.
It’s true that the US has talked a good fight in making it clear that it wants Assad gone. Last October, then-secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, suggested there was no role for Assad in Syria’s future. Yet Assad looks more secure than ever, with his champion, Vladimir Putin, happily stepping into the void left by the United States – most recently meeting with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani in Ankara last week. The three powers said they would work for stability in Syria. The US was excluded from the Ankara talks and, at the time, Trump seemed happy to be left out of things – hinting that American troops would withdraw from eastern Syria, where they have been fighting Isis alongside the global coalition and local Kurdish and Arab partners. The chemical weapons attack appears to have changed all that. Now, it seems, the US wants to ramp up its involvement in Syria by confronting Assad. Yet it has few partners to actually do anything on the ground, with the Syrian rebels in the north either clients of Turkey, or connected to Islamist extremist groups in Idlib province.
This makes it difficult to see a clear agenda if Washington does decide to try and weaken Assad by taking military action. The United States shares Israel and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran’s threat to the region, but weakening Assad too much might only empower Iran and Russia’s role in Syria. Washington can follow Israel’s lead in picking off select Iranian targets in Syria, of course, but how does that really punish Assad? Massive airstrikes could lead to more instability. While working with Turkey would put Washington at odds with its anti-Isis partners in eastern Syria. It could also easily backfire by leaving Isis and other extremists to grow.
In the 1990s, during the conflict with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, George H.W. Bush embraced the ‘Powell Doctrine’ of clear goals and overwhelming military force. Neither of those elements are present today. Any effective policy must bring western countries back to the table and sketch out a way to defeat Isis and Iran in Syria while punishing Assad. It must take into account Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and US partners in eastern Syria as well. Assad has been punished before with airstrikes and a tongue-lashing, but with the backing of his allies in Tehran and Moscow, he has only continued his transgressions. Trump is determined to make Assad pay the price for his actions, But the bigger question is that without a clear objective, what’s the point?