Less than 72 hours after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in Syria, America responded by targeting the air base used for the gas attacks. The primary motive for the strikes doubtless is to restore America’s moral leadership. The level of disharmony at the international level and the United Nations makes America the only power that had the necessary resources to respond unilaterally to the heinous acts of the brutal Syrian dictator.
At the same time that the strike by the Trump administration signals a shift in American policy towards Assad’s regime, it also bears other lessons for other enemies and adversaries.
- Assad can no longer use chemical weapons and escape the consequences
The fast and furious U.S. response is a signal for Assad that any future chemical attack will be met with an even stronger response by America. Mainly due to the disengagement policy of the Obama administration and the inability of the United Nations to react because of Russian opposition, Assad regularly used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. The current administration understands the causal role of human rights violations in fueling the conflict in Syria. In UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s words, “human rights abuses are not the byproduct of conflict—they are the cause of conflict.” In this light, responding to Assad’s brutality is not only a moral imperative, but also a move toward stability in Syria.
2. The fight against ISIS is no excuse for inaction against Assad
Since the rise of ISIS, the world community has been narrowly focused on the barbaric crimes perpetrated by the extremist group. It was assumed by many actors that addressing Assad’s violation of international human rights would distract from the main issue. The missile strikes against Assad in response to his use of chemical weapons sends the message to allies and adversaries that punishing Assad does not conflict with, and can be conducted simultaneous to fighting ISIS.
3. America is taking on the leading role in the Syrian crisis
Before the missile strikes, it was assumed by many regional powers that the main power involved in Syria was Russia. Obama’s disengagement policy had provided Putin with a golden opportunity to re-claim Russia’s position as a world power by entering the Syrian conflict to prop up Assad. In addition, Iran and Hezbollah, assured of the inaction of the United States, deployed their forces and proxies into Syria, where they have been mainly responsible for the prolongation of the civil war. America is regaining the upper hand after the bold move by the Trump administration. It is important to note that the United States acted unilaterally, without informing or seeking permission from any other actor, signaling that the strikes mark a first big step in the direction of America’s new role in the Syrian conflict. This new state of affairs will undoubtedly encourage a reality check by Russia and Iran.
4. Russia needs to revise its support for Assad
As long as it did not hit any major resistance from a major power, Putin’s support for Assad was in Moscow’s interest, and Russia partially regained the prestige of a superpower. However, with the U.S. taking the field against Assad, continued Russian support for the Syrian dictator would only cost Russia without providing any advantage or benefit. Assad lost all legitimacy long ago. By discontinuing his support for Assad and joining the multilateral effort to oust him, Putin can continue to be a major player.
5. The U.S. sees Assad as the obstacle to a political resolution of the crisis
The targeting of Assad’s air base sends the message that the United States considers the Syrian regime as an obstacle to a resolution of the conflict. The Trump administration understands that Assad’s brutalities are a causal element; therefore, removing Assad from power would benefit the goal of stability and peace in Syria. The Geneva agreement, which is the basis of current talks among the parties involved in the conflict, outlines a framework for the peaceful transition of power from Assad to an interim government. In the past, again because of American disengagement, Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons have resisted the political process by insisting on keeping Assad in power. Given the new set of circumstances, America can convince Russia that Assad must go.