Donald Trump's Dangerous Game with Syria
Second, what would the Russians do in response? Gen. Valery Gerasimov—the chief of Russia’s General Staff—is not a man who likes to draw attention to himself, so it would be very unwise for Washington to dismiss his threats of “retaliatory measures” in the event of U.S. military action against the Syrian government. Moscow has invested enormous resources into the Assad regime’s preservation; indeed, were it not for the Russian Air Force, Assad’s head would probably be on a pike. The Trump administration should not delude itself into thinking that Russian president Vladimir Putin would change tact after a hypothetical U.S. military operation—however small-scale and precise it may be. Are the dangers of a potential great power confrontation worth the benefits of a few days of positive news stories for the White House?
Third, does the Trump administration even have legal authority to launch a strike against the Syrian government? Many lawmakers would argue that the answer is yes—that as commander-in-chief, President Trump has the executive power to order U.S. troops and airmen into a combat situation when he assesses it is in the U.S. national security interest to do so. This, however, would be a skewed interpretation of the law and what the U.S. Constitution actually says about the matter. The president may be the commander-in-chief, but that doesn’t mean he exercises the powers of a king. Were America’s elected officials in the legislative branch do not approve of the military option, then it would be plainly illegal for any president to go ahead and authorize it. If President Trump is intent on pulling the trigger, he needs to dispatch his national security team to Capitol Hill in order to make his case.
Finally, it is America’s duty to respond to every suspected or confirmed case of chemical weapons use in any part of the world? If Trump chooses to use military force and destroyed a few dozen Syrian combat aircraft or a few Syrian army bases or checkpoints in response to the grisly events in Douma, then he will set a precedent and opens up the United States to similar action in the future. The world will expect the United States to get involved, regardless of whether the situation directly impacts U.S. national security. What happens, for example, if the Sudanese government decides to utilize chemical weapons in the Darfur region again? Would America’s friends, allies, and partners dial up the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department and expect the United States to ride to the rescue in a remote part of Africa? What if investigators confirm that the Turkish military did in fact use chemical substances during its assault in the northern Syrian city of Afrin? Would it be incumbent upon Washington to wage a military campaign against Turkey, a NATO member-state that has permitted the United States to stage bombing runs against ISIS from Incirlik? When does it stop?
If the National Security Council staff wishes to serve the president well, it would put all of these questions on the agenda. Those urging immediate U.S. military action will likely find such a debate an excuse to do nothing. That however, couldn’t be further from the truth—working all aspects of the problem across the inter-agency is how the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus should run.
Daniel R. DePetris is a world affairs columnist for Reuters, a frequent contributor to the American Conservative and the National Interest, and a foreign-policy analyst based in New York, NY.