In Syria, Trump Needs to Learn Impulse Control

By Kim Shively

Many people have supported Trump’s bombing of the airfield in Syria in response to President Bashar Al-Assad’s use chemical weapons against his own population. Even people I consider to be my political “heroes”—people such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—failed to oppose Trump’s action. I can certainly understand the desire to respond forcefully to the suffering that Assad has inflicted on his own people. The images of dying men, women, and children were terrible to bear and stirred our deepest sympathies. However, Trump’s approach to the problem of Syria is reckless and impulsive and may make things worse for the very people he claims to care so much about. What I would like to do here is lay out why Trump’s actions were useless at best, destructive at worst.

First of all, the bombing of the Syrian airbase with the goal of weakening Assad was a knee-jerk reaction to events without any reference to long-term effects. Trump needs to consider the fact that the removal of Assad would only strengthen ISIS. Indeed, Assad is probably one of the strongest forces against ISIS in the region, whether we like it or not.  Certainly, ISIS is cruel to its enemies, and it is tragic that so many innocent Syrians are caught between these the rock of Assad and the hard place of ISIS. But what should be clear is that removing Assad without clear plans for the aftermath will not save anyone. This is why President Obama—who also wanted to get rid of Assad—was reluctant to strike directly against him. A world without Assad might be as bad, or even worse, than a world with him.  Any feasible response to regime change in Syrian would have to make sure that all the stakeholders (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the European Union, along with the US) can chart a road toward stability.

Secondly, the suffering of the Syrian people has been going on for years, and Trump in his previous statements, has shown absolutely no compassion for Syrian suffering.  Perhaps this attack is different. Perhaps there is something special about the suffering associated with chemical weapons. But the hundreds of thousands of Syrians (about 450,000 so far) who were killed with bombs, guns, rockets, and starvation never seemed to arouse Trump’s compassion. Since taking office, Trump has twice proposed bans that would keep out the very Syrians he now wants to save through bombing.

The fact that Trump suddenly found compassion for the suffering Syrians should lead us to ask what is this military strike really all about. Who benefits? Trump’s sudden change of heart suggests that the airstrike was a diversionary tactic from the investigations pertaining to the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia and the failures of the Trump administration. That is, this (ineffective) attack on the Syrian airbase comes across as a way to create an image of a decisive, muscular Trump, whose administration has so far been fraught with chaos and accusations of corruption.

Finally, we’ve already seen this movie. After September 11, 2001, George W. Bush suddenly decided that regime change in Iraq was necessary, purportedly because Saddam Hussein was a threat to his own people and to others in the region. Namely, Bush thought the world would be a better place without Hussein.  But the removal of Hussein without a long-term strategic plan led to more than a decade of chaos and bloodletting that gave rise to ISIS. Do we really want to go there again? Has Trump, who has such a poor grasp of foreign affairs, willing to think through the implication of his actions rather than give in to his impulses?  So far, there is no sign.