Six years. For six years, the U.S. position in Syria has been supportive of the rebellion against Assad. We finance the rebels and give them the materials to fight an upward war. But the whole time, our focus has not necessarily been on subverting the Assad government — instead, the U.S. leads the international coalition against ISIL and finances the rebels on the side. This was true until earlier this week, when the U.S. launched 59 tomahawk missiles against a Syrian government air base. Is this a change in our policy? Will we now readily engage Assad face to face? Only time will tell. In any case, it was a bold, assured move by President Donald Trump in a situation that has needed this sort of intervention since its inception.
The reality is that the U.S. has been too lenient with Assad. In 2013, where was the strong response after the government used sarin gas in Ghouta? The government pledged to disarm its chemical weapon stockpiles — yet here we are, outraged after another slaughter. Excluding the day-to-day killings of innocents in Aleppo — a once thriving capital, now rubbed to dirt — the government has committed numerous war crimes that the international community has spoken out against. As one of the biggest players in the Syrian conflict, the U.S. should be the one to address atrocity when it occurs, not cower behind human shields in the rebels.
This is not to say we have avoided all direct pressure on Assad. Diplomatically, the international community is pointing a finger at any action that could be considered inhumane or illegal and actually talking about the issue — more than we got in 1994. The result of this soft pressure? Well, not much. Assad agrees to resolutions with crossed fingers.
A strong statesman like Assad, disposed to killing his own people, will only respond to an equally strong reaction from the U.S. By striking directly after the government’s use of chemical weapons early last week, the U.S. has drawn a line in the sand. No more joking around. Chemical weapons use is a serious violation of human rights — not to mention international law after the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention — and must be met with the highest degree of reasonable pressure from the international community.
However, this doesn’t mean the U.S. should become more aggressive in Syria’s chaos. It is important to remember that the fear of an attack is often enough to deter aggression from a government. The demonstration of force is a powerful tool and ideally this one strike will be enough to prevent any more in the future. If the proper steps are taken now, peace may be on the distant horizon in Syria. Now, while the government is acutely aware of the U.S. disposition, is the time for diplomacy and peace negotiations.
The U.S. now finds itself at a fork in the road. Down one path is a grim future where the war in Syria is intensified, where the U.S. engages with Assad militarily but can’t stop the conflict because of Iran and Russia — Assad’s allies. The other path is more hopeful, where conflict is lessened after diplomatic work and negotiation. Under a traditional administration one might be able to predict which path the U.S. will choose. But Trump is different. His policies are unpredictable. Nobody can be assured on which side of the political spectrum he will lean next week. Let’s hope he leans on the peaceful route.