Less than 48 hours after announcing Bashar al-Assad could stay in power, the United States proceeded to bomb him. In all fairness to the President, the situation had changed; the use of sarin against civilian populations was a clear slap in America’s face, all but daring President Trump to do something. Something was indeed done. But what exactly was it? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that the strikes do not represent a major change in American policy on Syria. However, Tillerson’s message was contradicted NSA McMaster’s characterization of the strikes as a “big shift” which should cause Assad to revise his calculus. Thus, nobody, including the administration itself, seems to know what Trump was trying to achieve by striking Syria. This is a very bad thing.
American Presidents love cruise missiles because they appear to be an easy, low-risk punitive tool. However, the siren song of the Tomahawk is dangerous and misleading. On their own, they cannot inflict sufficient damage to alter adversaries’ behavior. Therefore, should the enemy refuse to back down, then the President is faced with a choice: either escalate or look even weaker than if he had chosen not to strike at all. Aare already taking off from the airfield struck, indicating that the damage done was minimal at best. Furthermore, unconfirmed reports suggest the regime has used phosphorus and chlorine bombs since the attack. Absent further action, Assad may interpret this as an indication that the benefits of using chemical weapons outweigh the cost. This may force Trump to respond with additional kinetic measures. The Trump Administration could be caught in an escalation spiral without a clear idea as to their desired outcome. Therefore, before any additional bombings, it would be nice if the government were to cobble together a strategy.