The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that rained down on a remote Syrian air force base Thursday night could be a one-off strike designed as a chest-thumping show of force by President Trump in response to the horrific Syrian chemical attack in that country's northwest earlier this week. Or it could be the first shot in a cascading series of military actions – including the creation of refugee safe zones, no-fly zones aimed at grounding Syrian and Russian air forces, and direct attacks on Syria's main military units – that might trigger what, until this week, seemed unthinkable: a direct U.S.-Russian military showdown.
What's clear is that the strikes, launched in the dead of night, won't by themselves change much at all. They won't change the balance of forces in Syria’s civil war, which – after a series of on-the-ground military advances by the Syrian regime's forces and its Russian and Iranian allies – has essentially been won by Damascus. They won't deter either Moscow or Tehran from backing Bashar al-Assad's government, which both counties have deemed an indispensable ally. And they won't even put much of a dent in Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons or its ability to deliver them.
What's different about Trump's attack, however, is that it changes the rules of the game. Unlike virtually all of the earlier 7,000-plus strikes in Syria over the past five years, which exclusively targeted the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, Trump's attack is the very first deliberate action against the Syrian armed forces.
Because war is unpredictable, as the dust settles on Shayrat Air Base, the target of the attacks – from which, according to the Trump administration, Syrian planes carried chemical weapons into battle in Idlib Province – it isn't clear how Syria, Russia and Iran will respond. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, condemned the U.S. action as an "act of aggression," and the Russians suspended a crucial 2015 agreement that facilitated contacts between U.S. and Russian military commanders to prevent accidental encounters between the two countries' air forces.
Trump, his administration in shambles and plagued by a political knife-fight involving his own White House staff, probably calculated that he'd benefit from the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon that accompanies U.S. military action. And, indeed, he's won plaudits across the political spectrum, including from Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, who'd been bitterly critical until now of Trump's clumsy, ally-alienating America First approach. Democrats, too, including Obama administration veterans, praised the cruise missile strikes. (In fact, just hours before the strikes were launched, Hillary Clinton told an audience, "I really believe that we should have – and still should – take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.")
Yet it's a sharp, and stunning, departure for Trump. Earlier this week, even after the gas attack, administration officials proclaimed their belief that the United States has no military role in Syria. And, during the 2016 campaign, Trump incessantly declared that while he'd "bomb the shit out of ISIS," he saw Russia as an anti-terrorist ally and that he saw no need to take on Assad. And in 2013, after President Obama announced his "red line" over Syria's repeated use of sarin gas, Trump tweeted, "President Obama, do not attack Syria." But, announcing on Wednesday that he changed his mind – "that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me," he said in the Rose Garden – Trump launched the missiles.
Whether Trump truly had a change of heart, or whether the hawkish military advisers around him – such as Secretary of Defense Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis, a former Centcom commander, and Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser who replaced the resigned Gen. Michael T. Flynn – got to him, isn't known. Nor is it known whether the White House sees the attack as the first salvo in an escalating Middle East war, though the Pentagon, especially since Obama announced the "red line" in Syria in 2013, has had constantly updated plans in place for a wider war in Syria.
But the brutal logic of the war in Syria, which has left hundreds of thousands dead since it began in 2011 and forced millions to flee as refugees, is stark: Short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria designed to topple Assad, there's no way to dislodge the Syrian dictator by force – especially now that, since 2015, the Russian military has entered the conflict directly.
The only way to resolve the Syrian conflict is through a diplomatic accord, one involving the government in Damascus and those parts of the opposition – not including ISIS and Al Qaeda – willing to participate. Since late last year, Russia, in coordination with both Iran and Turkey, has conducted a series of talks toward that end, including some of the armed rebel groups. But Trump's feckless military action, even if it isn't followed up by further strikes and a wider war, is almost guaranteed to make a diplomatic solution far tougher. That's because it will energize and embolden the armed rebels, who've been calling for tougher U.S. action in Syria for years, and it will strengthen the resolve of their chief backers, the ultraconservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who provide most of the cash and weapons to the anti-Assad forces.
President Obama for years resisted getting involved too deeply in the Syrian quagmire. During Obama's second term, the United States provided lethal support to Syria's armed opposition, though ineffectively to say the least, and used air power against terrorist groups, including the Islamic State's forces. But Obama rejected calls from virtually his entire national security team, including Secretary of State Clinton, to impose a military-backed no-fly zone in Syria and to intensify American support for the anti-Assad insurgency. He did so because, in his opinion, there didn't appear to be any end game. Now that Russia has thrown its lot in with Assad in spades, that's even more true. So it's hard to see what Trump can accomplish, either – other than plunging the United States into a head-to-head conflict with Moscow.