Great leaders are often made by the decisions and paths they embark upon when faced with circumstances that shape history. In Syria, US President Donald Trump’s bold decision to strike the Bashar Assad regime has now brought him to the forefront of leadership on the global stage. The Assad regime made an egregious strategic error in attempting to test President Trump’s mettle. Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not hedge or vacillate for weeks on end. Instead, he retaliated when Assad decided to launch — yet again — a chemical weapon that has the power to kill thousands with each bomb or missile.
Assad was not only testing Trump, but the very sanctity of the international order. Imagine if the non-attributable use of sarin gas became a normalized precedent. Hezbollah, North Korea and Iran’s various terror proxies would have a pathway and incentive to use the odorless, colorless weapon of mass destruction without fear of any deterrence whatsoever.
The American cruise missiles that slammed into the Assad regime’s Shayrat airbase, were more than a shot across the bow; they had a tangible impact militarily and psychologically against the Assad war-machine and his Iranian and Russian backers. Both Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies had grown accustomed to the freedom afforded to them by an Obama administration whose sole myopic concern was to negotiate a deal with the Iranian regime, regardless of the regional geopolitical costs or the human toll of genocide.
On April 6, for the first time in six years, thanks to Trump, there was a cold stop to Assad and Iran’s actions in Syria. The Shayrat airbase was a facility of death — pure and simple. A massive sprawling airbase, it had a special chemical weapons production and storage facility. The base is strategically positioned and was a central logistics hub for Assad’s warplanes. Ensuring that it is no longer operational will save thousands of lives.
Let us hope he takes full advantage of the momentum he has gained in Syria and finishes the job properly.
The total degradation of the Assad regime’s air defense system and the inability of Russian military assets and air force to prevent US strikes also means that the prior fears expressed by the Obama administration were wholly unfounded. The sole repercussions of the missile strike seem to be a strongly worded statement by the Kremlin and the usual rhetoric from Tehran.
This is why Trump and the Pentagon planners should not hesitate in planning other direct strikes against major airbases in Syria. Assad must be hit again and again, until the use of sarin and VX gas becomes an impossible option.
Now that Trump has shown that he is willing and able to leverage force, the US should send a loud and clear message that the longer Assad refuses to abide by a UN-mandated blueprint for political transition under the Geneva Communique plan, the more direct military pressure there will be. Trump’s executive decision in Syria is not a slippery slope to an open-ended military quagmire. The Assad regime has not had any proper incentive to halt its policy of systemic genocide and to abide by UN-supervised peace negotiations. But because of Trump, Assad’s obstinate calculations could very well be altered and the path to negotiations opened in earnest. Washington’s pundits, both on the left and right, who have been critical of Trump’s decision are asking: What comes next? Americans are concerned that if additional military strikes lead to Assad’s precipitous downfall that an even larger vacuum could arise in Syria.
With Trump at the helm, a lasting breakthrough to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table is within reach. The strategic unpredictability of Trump and his willingness to leverage the might of the US military to show Assad that there are real and painful repercussions for genocide could be a pathway for stability or wider confrontation.
Former Obama administration officials have recently written bitterly on the degrading experience of having had to “beg” the Russians to allow for humanitarian concessions in Syria. Such weakness does not invite concessions or compromise by the opposing side. History has shown us that an American retreat only leads to further bloodshed. Neither Assad nor Ayatollah Khamenei nor Vladimir Putin respected the way of Obama. Assad’s sarin gas slaughter was a direct product of the perception of US weakness.
Will further possible US unilateral strikes endanger the fight against Daesh and Al-Qaeda? The Kremlin would like us to think so; Moscow declared that it will no longer participate in airspace “deconfliction” with US military forces operating against Daesh in Syria. But this is likely to prove short lived at best.
We should not lose sight of the fact that Assad’s use of sarin gas against civilians severely impacts the fight against extremists in Syria who seek to launch international terror attacks. Indeed, if Assad were serious about fighting Daesh, he would not have focused the overwhelming majority of his military assets in Shayrat airbase against the opposition-held province of Idlib.
The US does not need the Russians to fight Al-Qaeda, either. If Assad’s forces are halted, the US can offer the necessary space for Sunni Arab forces on the ground and the necessary aircover to take the fight to Al-Qaeda.
The sight of children gassed to death by Assad moved Trump to action. But his decision to strike Assad was not simply an emotional one. Assad’s unchecked evil and remarkable consistency in miscalculating demonstrates that Syria, the Middle East, and indeed the world, will be better off with him long gone.
Let us hope that Trump takes full advantage of the momentum he has gained in Syria and finishes the job properly.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.