• Daniel Ethan Finneran

To Act In Syria

April 2017


“Action cures fear while inaction creates terror”. These words, spoken by Douglas Horton—a leading clergyman in the mid 1950s—paint a binary portrait with a sweeping brush. More often than not, the answers aren’t so simple or straightforward. Finer bristles are required, nuanced hues must be dabbed, and most importantly, a precise hand need apply them. Smeared upon America’s palette of options in Syria are many shades of grey. The answers to such problems, perhaps to Horton’s surprise, aren’t black or white. They’re not dichotomous or dichromatic, although the world wishes they were.


This past week’s fusillade, which included more than fifty missiles being fired at the Al Shayrat airfield base in western Syria, leaves settling in the smoke an uncomfortable haze. That smoke, fetid as it is, will be sooner swept away than the uncertainty that settles in its place. Both the pundits and the hoi polloi are left adrift in the ambiguity asking the question…“Now what?”


To think that this strike won’t have repercussions is naïve. Irrespective of its appropriateness, it was an American attack. Any Syrian worth his salt and sand in Assad’s regime could claim that as our missiles whistled toward them in the matutinal Middle Eastern sky, America had effectively declared war. In the minds of Syrian government officials, whose egregious absence of morality and humanity has led to countless casualties in their own cities, the attack could be construed as an act of war on America’s behalf. This construal seems to be the Russian government’s view and it mightn’t be farfetched to think the Iranians agree too.


The Pentagon sees the attack much differently. There they contend this wasn’t an act of escalated aggression, but rather one of retribution. Righteous retribution, I should say, for the wanton civilian executions Assad’s carried out. The Syrian despot is accused of having used sarin gas, a noxious and lethal chemical concoction, on his own people more than once. He contests the charges, but the images and anecdotes from Damascus, Aleppo, Saraqib, and Jobar are rather incriminating. It’s indefensible, but the warped Syrian psyche, strengthened by Moscow’s deeply rooted interests in the regime’s perpetuity, might see our strike in a different way.


The question then becomes this: If a similar atrocity occurs, and Assad again rains poison on his own people from the skies above, does the U.S. again intervene? Do we choose to insert ourselves directly a second time (likely with a more aggressive response) or do we remain idle, which would prove that our latest strike was a mere one-off display?


If we choose the former, the Russians might cease looking so amicably at our shared airspaces in Syrian skies. If that becomes the case, we could be just one misstep away from turning our post-Cold War permafrost into an uncomfortably warm affair. And while it’s not entirely clear at this point if Putin has hegemony on his mind in the Middle East, his interest in the region has undoubtedly grown. At the very least, Assad is indebted to Putin for his continued support. Under Russia’s auspices, Assad has quite literally gotten away with murder. The two nations are thus deeply intertwined. It’s obvious then, that at the end of the day, Putin has much more riding on Assad’s success than America has on his failure.


President Trump seems to have affirmed that last sentence. Much has been said about his comments in 2013, when he commented as a private citizen about Assad’s use of his sarin gas against his own kinsmen and women. Trump implored (assumedly so, given the tweet’s letters were capitalized) Obama to keep his distance from Syrian affairs. It’s clear that in his first few months as president, Trump has changed ever-so slightly his tune. He was never a non-interventionist, but he always erred on the sided of keeping our interests stateside. His recent military strike shows, however, that he’s become pliant to the exigencies of the presidency. When the circumstances evolve, so too must former convictions.


But just where will these changing convictions and evolving circumstances take us? Americans have a right to pose this and many other questions. I think it’s far from a querulous inquiry to ask where the administration’s foreign policy stands. Trump has told us he intends to be unpredictable, to act without precedent, and to strike enemies unlike former presidents. But this is discomfiting talk from a man who once toyed with the idea of a nuclear first-strike (“why have them if you can’t use them?” he once pondered aloud). This idea of “strategic” spontaneity might have its time and place, but it also runs the risk of being too hastily deployed.


I hope that this initial attack in Syria, necessary though it may have been in the moment, doesn’t portend unprovoked belligerence to come. This hope is generally shared abroad; foreign leaders were once convinced President Trump was little more than a paper tiger. They’re now re-calculating and considering a different conclusion. Syrian civilians, who have nominally but not willingly accepted the designation as “collateral damage”, have perhaps the most to worry about. So long as America’s salvos can put a cap on Assad’s noxious showers, the Syrian people will come to not only welcome, but beg for more American missiles.


In the attack’s aftermath, although many questions still await answers, a few things have become clear. We know that mere days following the strike, the targeted airfield returned to functioning as though nothing had happened. This was a shocking, and frankly, bathetic turn of events. The explanations for this are two: one is the Syrian government’s obduracy and resilience to a strike. The second is an ineffective and impotent American intervention. How else might one explain such an underwhelming result in a sleeping Syrian airbase?


What’s also persistently clear is that fact that America’s position on the Syrian refugee crisis hasn’t changed. Appalled by the scene, President Trump might’ve been tempted to welcome through our gates more of Syria’s desperate defectors. Having sent the missile salvo, it would make sense for Trump to send a sturdier lifeline Aleppo’s way. However, and much to their misfortune, this won’t be happening any time soon. The heart strings of this administration can be pulled, but only so far. Assistance from afar is fine, but only so long as Syria’s victims don’t turn to seeking succor on America’s shores.


So it seems as though Trump has chosen from his palette a familiar red to color in his line; Assad’s chemical attacks on Syrian civilians is his line in the sand. But what good is a red line if its covered in the drifts of Damascus’ blood-stained dunes?


In returning to our original quote, we must ask if our action has succeeded in curing fear. Unfortunately, from the look of it, I should think that the disease in need of curing festers on. As for the question, “now what?”, the answer is not so clear. The only thing we know now is that the Syrian, the Middle East, and the entire world awaits America’s next step with bated breath. Take care to inhale.

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