Trump still wants out of Syria
President Trump signaled this week that he was sticking to his plan to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria in the coming months, after launching a limited set of missile strikes on the Syrian regime in response to a chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 40 civilians in Douma. In a joint pre-dawn mission with France and the U.K. last Saturday, the U.S. and its allies fired 105 Tomahawk and other missiles to destroy three facilities linked to the Syrian government’s chemical-weapons program. To avoid provoking Russia—which along with Iran is backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—the Pentagon avoided hitting any targets near Russian forces. The strike came only 10 days after Trump told the Joint Chiefs of Staff he wanted to remove all U.S. troops in Syria by the fall. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senators this week that Trump remained set on extricating the U.S. from Syria, despite intense lobbying by senior administration officials and French President Emmanuel Macron. Administration officials are now seeking to form a coalition of Arab states to help replace American troops in Eastern Syria and prevent ISIS from regrouping.
Trump initially pushed for a more forceful response in Syria—largely because he’d sent a series of bellicose tweets promising Assad would pay “a big price”—but he was talked down by Mattis, The New York Times reported. In a televised address, the president urged Moscow and Tehran to drop their support for Assad, and warned that the U.S. would launch further strikes if the “monster” dictator used chemical weapons again. On Twitter, Trump described the strikes as “perfectly executed,” adding: “Mission Accomplished!” He later angrily reversed an announcement by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said the military response would be coupled with new sanctions on Russian companies linked to Syria’s chemical-weapons program. The White House said Haley was “confused,” and that no new sanctions would be imposed.
What the editorials said
“Trump was right to order the strike,” said The Washington Post. It’s “vital” that civilized nations uphold the international ban on these “horrific” weapons. But “the mission is far from accomplished,” and the president’s determination to pull U.S. troops out of Eastern Syria is “misguided.” Arab-nation forces would be no match for the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime and Turkey. The Turks would decimate the Kurdish troops who helped the U.S. defeat ISIS, and Tehran would “obtain the land corridor it seeks across Syria”—all but guaranteeing a catastrophic conflict between Iran and Israel.
Limited strikes please neither isolationists nor hawks, said the Chicago Tribune. But unless the U.S. launches an Iraq War–style intervention in Syria—something no sane American wants—the country’s fate will ultimately be determined by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Those countries have much more at stake, and are thus willing to take greater risks to achieve their aims. The U.S. must accept its status as a “marginal player.”
Trump’s hasty reversal on sanctions is deeply suspicious, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Despite a litany of “egregious transgressions” by Russia—including Moscow’s denial that the Assad regime used chemical weapons—he continues to advocate “a good relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Could the once far-fetched notion that Trump is being blackmailed by Putin actually hold some truth?
What the columnists said
“Somewhere, deep in his concrete labyrinth,” Assad is smiling, said Dexter Filkins in NewYorker.com. He’s paid only a small price for using chemical weapons to flush out the remaining resistance in Douma. Trump gave him time to move his warplanes to Russian bases, and held back a truly punishing attack that would antagonize Moscow. Assad now knows Trump will never seek to force him from power, no matter how many Syrians he slaughters. Trump “deserves credit” for enforcing President Obama’s infamous “red line,” said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. But the airstrikes didn’t hit “a single airplane, airfield, or delivery system,” leaving his air force intact. This “weak” response will not only leave Assad “emboldened,” it will also reassure North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Trump’s bellicose threats are empty.
Actually, Trump appears to be embracing a sensible middle path, said Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal. Rather than trying to impose a U.S.-led solution on a broken region, he wants only to ensure that neither Russia nor Iran becomes too dominant. When the “balance of power” is secure, he can keep his distance; when that balance is threatened, he can work with regional partners to rein in aggressors. This approach “has a real chance of success,” but only if this administration can learn to manage its alliances.
The biggest worry is Trump’s “increasingly extreme mental state,” said David Frum in TheAtlantic.com. On the day the president was supposedly mulling his options for Syria, he was angrily tweeting about the criminal investigation into his private lawyer as well as the Russia investigation. Seething with “rage and resentment,” Trump is clearly allowing his emotions—and what he sees on Fox News—to “distort his decision making.” This is deeply alarming. With major military decisions ahead on Iran and North Korea, we have a commander in chief who very clearly “is not in command of himself.”
The Trump plan to replace U.S. troops in Syria with Arab-nation forces is highly problematic, said Alex Ward in Vox.com. Two of our most important would-be partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are already “overextended” militarily in Yemen, and thus unlikely to commit troops. Even if they did, most experts think their sub-par militaries “would struggle in a campaign against ISIS.” Worse, that plan would “pit the military forces of two mortal enemies” now fighting for control of the region—Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia—directly against each other. That could provoke a “dangerous and unnecessary escalation” that could trigger a regional war.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Newscom, Reuters, Newscom