By Daniel R. DePetris
As the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad prepare for a final military offensive against Idlib, one of the last remaining rebel-dominated provinces in the war-torn country, Trump administration officials are concerned about the possibility of more chemical weapons attacks. The United States, France, and the U.K. issued a joint statement pledging that any additional use of chemical agents by the Assad regime would be met with an appropriate response. National Security Adviser John Bolton delivered a similar message to his Russian counterpart during his visit to Moscow last week. According to Bloomberg News, Bolton told the Russians an Assad regime chemical attack would be met with far greater force than Washington’s previous retaliatory strikes in April 2017 and April 2018.
Bolton’s comments can best be summarized as an ultimatum, but the administration shouldn’t make national security policy by putting U.S. credibility on the line before engaging in a thorough, hard-headed, and fact-based assessment of the costs and benefits. Would U.S. military intervention in Syria serve the security and prosperity interests of the American people in any way; would a military strike on the Syrian regime actually make a difference in the war’s trajectory; is the emotional benefit of punishing Assad for a bad act worth the considerable danger of an escalation with Russia and Iran; and what legal basis would permit the White House to launch a round of missile strikes?
Since the Russian air force began intervening on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015, the Syrian government has been on the upswing. The Syrian army, with valuable assistance from Iranian-organized militias and Russian bombers, has retaken most of Syria’s population centers and driven the rest of the opposition into Idlib, a rural province in the northwest nestled along the Turkish border.
The reality is the opposition cannot compete with the regime’s firepower. It is in a desperate state, internally divided between jihadists, armed salafists, and what is left of the “moderate” groups, and the rebels as a whole are besieged from all sides. They possess neither the numbers, assets, unity, or international support to prevent Assad’s recapture of Idlib. Nor do they have the leverage to strike an autonomy agreement on their terms. A volley of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian government military targets will do nothing to change the battlefield geometry in a war Washington doesn’t have an interest in participating in.
Proponents of a strike would argue that deterring the further use of chemical weapons—and punishing the perpetrator when chemical weapons are used—is a uniquely American responsibility. But it has become painfully obvious that Assad has not been deterred in using these weapons. The Trump administration’s first cruise missile strike on a Syrian government airbase in April 2017 was designed to establish that deterrence. Damascus, however, continued to use chemicals months later despite the risk of additional retaliation. For Assad, winning the war is his paramount interest, where the ends justify the means. Indeed, for Assad, mopping up the armed opposition is a matter of survival for him and his family.
While hitting Assad hard would satisfy the emotional urge of the Washington’s foreign policy establishment to “do something” in the event of another heinous crime by the regime, it would come at the significant cost of a potentially accidental clash with Russia—a country that has far more at stake in Syria’s endgame than the U.S. does. As my Defense Priorities colleague, retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, recently told Newsweek, “There is absolutely nothing of value in Syria that warrants even the potential for a military clash between Washington and Moscow.”
Finally, there are legal and constitutional dynamics the administration must consider. Unless Congress authorizes President Trump to use military force against the Syrian government, any missile attack from Washington would violate of the U.S. Constitution.
Unfortunately, President Trump has already violated the Constitution with respect to Syria on two separate occasions. In April of 2017 and 2018, in response to reported chemical attacks against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma, President Trump ordered a volley of cruise missiles at Syrian military targets. In both cases, the administration did so without even the slightest public debate or deliberation with the legislative branch. Congress was treated as a sideshow rather than the major player the framers intended.
In the expansionist interpretation of Trump’s attorneys, explicit congressional authorization was simply not required before the Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired. In a legal memorandum crafted by the Justice Department, the administration claimed that President Trump’s use of force was constitutionally permitted—not only because the action fell below the definition of war in the traditional sense of the word, but also because holding the Syrian government accountable was in the U.S. national interest.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were aghast at the legal reasoning.
Sen. Tim Kaine (VA) called Trump’s April 2018 missile strike “illegal,” while Rep. Justin Amash (MI) blasted the late night operation as “unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless.” Indeed, without a national debate and vote from America’s elected representatives—as mandated by Article I of the Constitution and by statute in the War Powers Resolution—a similar decision taken today would be just as reckless and erode the legitimacy of our founding document.
The Trump administration cannot afford to make U.S. national security policy in a vacuum. It would be foolish on its face for Washington to allow emotions to dictate when the U.S. chooses to deploy its military. And the test could not be any more clear: military force should only be used when core national security interests are at stake; when the security of Americans are directly threatened; and when the domestic tranquility and prosperity of the country is placed at risk. The civil war in Syria, as horrific as it has been to the people of that country, does not pass that test.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on August 30, 2018. Read more HERE.