The Risks of Trump's Strike on Assad in Syria

Trump Syria
President Donald Trump speaks about the gas attack in Syria in the Rose Garden on April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Updated | In light of President Donald Trump's decision to launch missiles at Syrian military targets on Thursday in response to a sarin gas attack on civilians, here's a window into the complexity on the ground in Syria. It's the opening sentence of the most recent report from Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that produces timely, detailed and apolitical information on the conflict every month: "Al-Qaeda resumed large-scale offensive operations against the regime following a consolidation phase in Northern Syria."

You remember Al-Qaeda, don't you? The radical jihadist group, along with several other Sunni jihadist organizations, is fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, along with his allies, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia in Syria. In pursuit of Trump's desire to destroy the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), U.S. forces have allied with Kurdish fighters to press the attack. ISIS, of course, is also fighting against the Assad regime.

Related: U.S. Launches Strike on Syrian Airfield

And now, apparently, the United States is as well. President Barack Obama laid down his "red line" in Syria in 2012 and then infamously walked away from it. Part of his motivation was not to annoy Iran, with whom he desperately wanted (and eventually got) an agreement on its nuclear program. The other part of his motivation: nothing says potential quagmire like a war in Syria.

Trump held the same position until the gas attack. The only thing he wanted to do in Syria was annihilate ISIS. Assad, the administration conceded, was not going to fall from power anytime soon. Now Trump's changed his mind, because he was, in the words of an aide, "absolutely sickened" by the sarin attack. To his credit, the president conceded as much in a Rose Garden press conference on Wednesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II. He lauded his own "flexibility," but his reaction was viscerally real. Trump laid down his own red lines—"many, many lines" were crossed, he said—and now the Pentagon is trying to express the world's outrage at the use of sarin (the gas has been used four times in history to kill), but do so in a way that presumably doesn't get the U.S. bogged down in a drawn out war. As Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, notes: "It's not an all or nothing scenario. We don't need to go from giving Assad a free hand to 100,000 boots on the ground."

Trump's strike is far riskier than one would have been under Obama because of the presence of Russian troops and military hardware—including sophisticated anti-aircraft units—in the country. "There obviously needs to be a healthy fear of great powers clashing," says Schanzer. Moscow doesn't advertise just how many troops it has now in Syria, but analysts estimate around 10,000, and that includes special forces units, some of whom are now embedded with fighters from Iranian Republican Guard Corps and with Hezbollah. Assad's forces have been so weakened during the war, in fact, that both Russian and Iranian troops are now threaded throughout the Syrian military—even at Assad's air bases, including the one from which the sarin attack was launched. "At this point there is no meaningful difference between the Syrian military, Hezbollah and Iranian forces. They're acting as one," says Jennifer Cafarella, lead intelligence planner at the ISW.

So for Trump, not only does Thursday's strike carry considerable risk, so does any further military action. The Pentagon is now mulling a no fly zone, to prevent Syrian air attacks against the rebels. But Moscow has air defense and strike aircraft in Syria as well, and while Russia and the U.S. set up a "deconfliction line"—precisely because they're both operating in the country—there still have been close calls and mistakes: six months ago the U.S. struck a Syrian troop position when it thought it was hitting ISIS fighters. More than 60 people died.

Another option for Trump would be creating safe zones in the country, something many have long called for. These safe zones have their own risks since they would need to be constantly defended from the air. One possibility: setting up a safe zone near the Iraqi border in southeastern Syria, far from where Russian and Iranian troops are operating, and where the U.S. has been hitting ISIS targets.

The complications of striking Assad are such that they may require diplomacy with Moscow. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has already tried shaming the Russians in the wake of the sarin attack, an effort to prepare the battlefield at the Security Council for a resolution condemning Assad. But any overture to get the Russians to back off their support for the regime (they have said in the past that their support is not "unconditional") will be more difficult now because of the anti-Moscow, "they stole our election" hysteria in Washington.

Nonetheless, Trump decided to act. He doesn't want to start World War III, but he does want to hit Assad for his use of nerve gas. Talking to Putin about it is probably inevitable, though the benefits of that outreach are hazy. His predecessor waltzed away from the red line he drew, and Trump is certainly right to say he has inherited "a mess."

Whether drawing another red line has made things better or worse is entirely unclear.

This story has been updated with news of the U.S. strike against Syria.