“A Troubled Place”—Trump Doubles Down on Syria…While Also Giving Up On It

Americans have grown used to whiplash with President Donald Trump, whose off-the-cuff remarks and prolific tweets can contradict themselves day to day, even hour to hour.  The whiplash in Trump’s Friday evening address to the nation on Syria may have been harder to spot—but, just below the surface, there it was.  In a single speech, Trump doubled down on American involvement in the unrelenting crisis in Syria, while also giving up on it.

First, the doubling down: America’s involvement in Syria since 2014 has been overwhelmingly focused on counterterrorism.  Admittedly, Trump briefly deviated from that script almost exactly one year ago when he launched 59 missiles at a Syrian regime airfield.  But, as I warned back then, a single such volley—especially one unaccompanied by explanation of its purpose and context, as I emphasized—was unlikely to have a lasting impact.

On Friday, with his previous attempt laid bare as insufficient to stop the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Trump promised something different.  He pledged “to sustain” America’s response, if necessary, by using military force against sites associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.  That means Friday’s strikes may not be the last—and, in turn, it means that the escalation of America’s direct confrontation with the Syrian regime, from the volley of missiles a year ago to the downing of a Syrian aircraft to this new round of strikes, may be heating up.

Some will praise that as overdue; others will criticize it as bogging the United States down and risking a deadly response.  Either way, the bigger point is that, on its surface, Trump’s speech doubled the objectives that America is actively pursuing in Syria using military force from counterterrorism to the eradication of the regime’s chemical weapons program.

But that brings us to the second part of the speech: the part where Trump gives up on Syria.  Speaking of the Middle East as a whole, but focused predominantly on Syria, Trump called it “a troubled place.”  And he indicated that countries like Syria would have to work out their fundamental problems for themselves: “the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”

All told, Trump gave the impression that one can simply pick the parts of the Syrian situation that one is interested in addressing—terrorism, now chemical weapons too—and deal with those, leaving aside the rest.  Alas, were it simply so easy.

Syria presents such a difficult problem precisely because its challenges are, ultimately, inextricably intertwined.  Authoritarian rule yielded protests in the streets.  Protests in the streets yielded a regime eager for an excuse to employ violent repression.  The quest to identify such an excuse yielded the regime’s claim to be fighting terrorists, a claim the regime itself bolstered by deliberately releasing at least a few terrorists—and many other violent criminals—from the country’s prisons.  The escalating violence yielded an enticing safe haven for terrorists facing pressure in other parts of the region.  The growing presence of terrorists expanded that safe haven, exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, and sparked foreign intervention.  That foreign intervention eventually included Russia’s bolstering of the Syrian regime.  And the gradual steadying of the regime yielded an impulse to clear the last pockets of resistance—including through the use of horrific chemical weapons.

It may be tempting to isolate the pieces of this devilish knot that one wants to focus on and put aside the others.  And, to be clear, there’s always a need to set priorities—much as the United States has rightly focused, first and foremost, on the terrorists who once threatened and may continue to threaten Americans at home and abroad.  But Syria isn’t a menu from which one can order a la carte.  It’s a single stew, and all of its problems are mixed together in there.

So, for Trump to double down on America’s mission in Syria by committing to a sustained counter-chemical weapons campaign while at the same time throwing up his hands at Syria as a troubled place is, in the end, unlikely to yield sustainable results.  Complex problems demand complex solutions.  In Syria’s case, that means not just countering terrorists and chemical weapons but also rebuilding the shattered country (which Trump’s remarks suggested he was eager to offload on American partners), addressing the continuing humanitarian crisis, engaging in diplomacy with the foreign powers exerting control over Syria’s future, and playing a role in working out what Syria will look like and how it will be governed when it, someday, emerges from its continued devastation.

Applaud Trump or criticize him for doubling down on Syria.  But don’t think he can also get away with giving up on it.  When it comes to tackling problems this hard and interconnected, picking and choosing the pieces to take on simply doesn’t cut it. 

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About the Author(s)

Joshua Geltzer

Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice.