The Way Forward on Syria

Posted: Apr 19, 2017 3:32 PM

The authorization by President Donald Trump to launch dozens of Tomahawk missiles at targets in Syria signaled to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rest of the world that America’s tolerance for provocations and threats has finally waned. 

No longer should we expect meaningless red lines or disadvantageous diplomatic pursuits that have an emboldening effect on adversaries that have either viewed America as weak or sought to attack the nation’s interests.  In just a few short months, President Trump has been decisive and unapologetic, whereas his predecessor was just the opposite. 

Already, President Trump has put Iran and North Korea on notice.  And with such a highly qualified and reliable national security team at his side, he’s released the shackles on the U.S. military that have constrained mission effectiveness and success.  This change in approach was even seen and felt by terror networks staged in Afghanistan recently when the so-called “Mother of all Bombs” was dropped without warning. 

All of this must not be confused for some shoot-from-the-hip, cowboy mentality. The action taken against the Syrian regime, following its latest use of chemical weapons against its own, is proof of that fact.  The missile strike was surgical and intended to prevent or disrupt any possibility for another chemical weapons attack.  For that reason alone, the right call was made. 

In some ways, the challenge with Syria is not unlike the challenges presented by other nation states getting the watchful eye of the U.S. and the Western world.  But each security challenge created by nations like Iran, North Korea, China and Russia are unique in their own way and a one-size-fits-all endeavor is as unworkable as it is dangerous to order and peace.

For Syria in particular, there’s no single solution within immediate reach to transform that nation into either a Western-aligned nation-state or create a structural and cultural shift in governance to incite the changes necessary to reduce or eliminate the challenges that exist.  Among them is Syria’s strong relationship with Russia—one of our biggest geopolitical rivals—and the extent to which their alliance is a counterweight to advancements by the Islamic State in a region of the world that is already volatile and under siege. 

A good way forward for President Trump and his national security team is to now leverage the missile strike to force Assad to the negotiation table in order to establish a reasonable path to peace.  Contingent should be the welcoming of an objective and independent inspection team to have a closer look at the claims and counter-claims around the use of chemical weapons—to ascertain the facts and inform any subsequent push for accountability and consequence to the furthest degree possible. 

Any suggestion of submitting a ground force into Syria or initiating operations to remove Assad from power is a failure to learn the lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It can be done, but at tremendous cost, including lives.  Much like Iraq will never mirror the U.S. in politics and culture, we should not presume that Syria’s population centers could one day resemble a place like San Diego, California, or that a Syrian government is capable of one day resembling what we’ve come to know and expect from our own political institutions. 

It’s not to say that progress in this direction is impossible, but to pretend it’s doable in short order and won’t demand significant sacrifice from the U.S. and a global coalition is short-sighted and risks opening the door for unintended ramifications.  And in the absence of Assad, we must also ask who would be next.  It’s a question to which there is no answer. 

As things stand now, the president did the right thing in deploying U.S. military might and he did it by exercising “Tomahawk diplomacy” to achieve an initial objective.  Next to consider is how this one event can be utilized to get Assad to come forward with the understanding that not only is there a new sheriff in town with President Trump, but also too that the U.S. will no longer be a bystander as chemical weapons are used to kill innocent people or threats are issued. 

Through this lens and approach, the U.S. can begin seeking changes without perhaps any further military engagement.  Even as the option of additional military force must exist, a message to the Syrian regime that it’s in its interests to negotiate and cease its attacks in the aftermath of a missile strike would most likely be met by a willingness to come forward out of fear of what might happen should they not.      

Congressman Duncan D. Hunter represents California's 50th Congressional District. He is a United States Marine veteran who served three combat tours overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.