April 16, 2018

Hitting Assad, and Putin, Where It Hurts

Trump strikes Syria for good strategic reasons but with questionable authority to do so.

From the squawking that has come from certain corners of the commentariat, you’d think that Donald Trump and his administration put no thought into hitting Syria again. That assumption is way off the mark — we needed to respond to (at least) the third use of chemical weapons against civilians by Syria’s murderous dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Even Great Britain and France joined the U.S. strike, and not without the risk of angering their own burgeoning Muslim populations.

In 2013, Assad first crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. Predictably and unfortunately, Barack Obama didn’t follow through on his threats against Assad and foolishly chose to trust Vladimir Putin with a deal to remove those weapons. When Assad used chemical weapons again in 2017, testing the resolve of the Trump administration, Trump hit an airfield pretty hard, targeting the Su-22 Fitter ground-attack planes at that base.

Assad has once again tested Trump’s mettle. While we have made significant strides to contain the Islamic State, Assad is challenging how far the administration will go to subdue the Syrian regime now that Putin has provided him with human shields in Russian uniforms.

After strikes on top of the sustained economic and diplomatic efforts, will Assad, and Putin, get the message this time? Probably not. Moreover, given that Assad isn’t hesitant about using chemical weapons on his own people, he’s not likely to think twice about handing them off to terrorists like Hezbollah or Hamas.

The good news from this second round of strikes is that we have diminished Putin’s shield. Russia did not use its advanced S-400 systems to try to protect Assad, and in fact moved his ships out of the way. Furthermore, Trump, who is already trying to leverage Putin, has now improved his chances by tying Putin closer to Assad.

Putin now has two unappetizing options: He can either hang Assad out to dry and lose credibility as an ally in the region, or he can be seen as defending a government that uses chemical weapons on its own people. So Trump’s strategy now is to negotiate a way for Putin to save some face — maybe by offering to lift some sanctions if Putin can talk Assad into leaving power and accepting exile in Russia.

This situation, though, isn’t risk-free for the United States. If Assad uses chemical weapons again, restoring deterrence would require either escalating the fight or folding. Hopefully, though, Putin and Assad will blink first.

A final note on the constitutional authority — or lack thereof — for these strikes. It must be reiterated that Trump is aiming to clean up the mess his predecessor left him, and that can limit options. He is also enforcing the Geneva Convention prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. He declared “mission accomplished” already and has no intent (yet) to expand U.S. military action in Syria. That said, he should have sought Congress’s backing. For its part, Congress has no interest in taking such tough votes, and thus happily cedes authority to the president, which has become a terrible precedent going back many administrations. But the Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaida and its safe-haven nations does not cover action against Assad’s regime. Nor does the 1973 War Powers Resolution, because this was not an act of self-defense against an immediate threat to the U.S.

The U.S. hasn’t formally declared war since 1941. That’s not likely to change any time soon, no matter the administration or the Congress.

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