What ‘Something’ Should Trump Make ‘Happen’ in Syria?
Thank goodness Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad weren’t paying much attention to Donald Trump in September 2013.
At that time, many of my Obama administration colleagues and I were spending most of our days on Capitol Hill, struggling to persuade a jittery and skeptical Congress to authorize U.S. airstrikes against Assad’s forces in Syria in response to a horrific chemical weapons attack that left nearly 1,500 civilians dead. It was an uphill fight. Both Republicans and Democrats were asking tough questions about how the planned strikes would work and what they would lead to, worried that the U.S. would get dragged into the Syrian morass.
President Barack Obama’s determination to threaten force ignited a frenzied national debate, one that Trump was more than happy to jump into. Trump reflected and fueled a national mood wary of Middle East conflicts, tweeting, “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA” and warning that “Obama’s war in Syria” would escalate into a “worldwide conflict” with Russia. This echoed what we were hearing from many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who were far more comfortable talking tough than sharing accountability for U.S. military actions.
Despite the doubts Trump and others expressed at the time — asserting that an attack had no upside and a tremendous downside — Putin and Assad clearly believed American bombs were coming, and to prevent that from happening they ended up agreeing to something that was unexpected and no one thought possible: a diplomatic deal to remove nearly 1,300 metric tons of Syria’s chemical weapons, then the world’s third-largest stockpile. Without a bomb being dropped, Syria had admitted to having massive chemical weapons program it had never before acknowledged, agreed to give it up, and submitted to an international coalition that removed the weapons and destroyed them at sea. This was an example of the threat of force achieving something the use of military power could not itself accomplish.