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In Syria, Trump May Have To Learn The Hard Way

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In Syria, Trump May Have To Learn The Hard Way

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Syria, Ceasefire

In the worldview Donald Trump brought to the White House, all problems are easy. Fix the economy by getting tough with China. End illegal immigration by building a wall. “Totally obliterate” the Islamic State.

Even after the humiliating failure of an effort in the House to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump declared: “I know that we’re all going to make a deal on health care. That’s such an easy one.”

Trump apparently thinks the same thing about one of the knottiest questions he has encountered — Syria. After a chemical weapons attack blamed on President Bashar Assad, Trump didn’t spend much time agonizing before using cruise missiles against a Syrian air base. It’s a response that creates new dangers without solving old problems.

He obviously never read up on Dwight Eisenhower, who said: “No easy problems ever come to the president of the United States. If they are easy to solve, someone else has solved them.”

Syria is one of those no one has solved, mainly because it is virtually impossible. The country has been a charnel house since 2011, when an armed uprising elicited savage responses from Assad — bombing hospitals, torturing opponents and starving civilians.

In 2012, Barack Obama threatened U.S. retaliation if Assad used chemical weapons. When he used them anyway, Obama changed his mind, recognizing that major military measures had scant prospect of success but an excellent chance of catastrophe.

The options in Syria did not become more viable merely because Trump finally took note of what’s happening. In fact, they have gotten worse. Russia now has ground and air forces in Syria, fighting on the side of the regime.

Hawks accused Obama of facilitating Assad’s brutality by standing aside. But it was not until Trump arrived that this nerve gas attack occurred. Maybe Assad felt emboldened after the administration indicated his regime is “a political reality that we have to accept,” as press secretary Sean Spicer said March 31. In that case, Trump is not compensating for Obama’s mistakes so much as his own.

It’s hard to have any confidence that this decision was made in a careful way, with a clear sense of purpose and a full understanding of the risks. The suddenness of Trump’s shift indicates he gave no more thought to his new position than he did to his previous, opposite one.

The important questions are: What will the strike accomplish, and where will it lead? One taste of the lash isn’t likely to shake Assad’s grip on power or deter him from killing his own people on a large scale — possibly even with chemical weapons.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster admitted Friday that the dictator “will maintain the certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, we think, beyond this particular airfield.” The administration is trying to thread a very small needle. “This was not a small strike,” McMaster insisted, while noting that it was also “not of a scope or a scale that it (went) after all such related facilities.”

The exquisite calibration suggests Trump and his advisers want to reassure both the American people (“I’m tough!”) and the Russians (“Really, it’s nothing”). It indicates he has no intention of bringing down Assad. Maybe someone told him that without Assad, the chaos and bloodshed in Syria would not abate but expand and intensify.

Apparently, Trump is averse to full-scale intervention, which would carry the risk of direct combat with Russians in the air or on the ground. But as the signs on ski slopes say, hazards exist that are not marked. Once the U.S. inserts itself into the fight against Assad, the chance of a misstep increases. With a little bad luck, we could find ourselves at war not only with the Syrian government but with a nuclear superpower.

Why take the risk? Even if conflict with Russia could be avoided, making any real difference in the war would require a large number of U.S. ground troops for a long time. And the outcome would probably be a costly failure, kind of like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As every president learns, matters of war and peace look much simpler before you get to the White House. Obama came to understand that if we went to war in Syria, our adversaries might lose, but we would not win. Trump will learn that, too, but he may have to learn the hard way.

IMAGE: Children play near rubble of damaged buildings in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria December 25, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

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17 Comments

  1. Dominick Vila April 10, 2017

    The challenge for Trump, and for many Americans, is to overcome the pre-conceived opinions, often based on ignorance of other cultures and nations, that repeatedly get us entangled in wars we would be well advised to avoid. The problem is Syria, Lybia, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq is not new, and cannot be solved with regime changes. In Syria we have Alawites, Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, plus the Free Syrian Army and ISIS fighting Assad, and each other. Ancient religious disputes, tribal rivalries, legitimate aspirations, and external influences are all influencing a civil war that is destroying one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Russian and American intervention is exacerbating the situation and transforming it from a regional war, into what could easily degenerate into a world war. The best thing we could do is withdraw from that part of the world, and let the people in those countries decide what they believe is best for them. Let’s not forget that our presence, our insults and threats, and our insistence to demand changes that we believe are in their best interest, serve as a catalyst for much of the violence that is taking place in those countries, and throughout the world. The Muslim world does not need the ugly bear from the East, or a Western Father Knows Best. They want to be left alone. They want the East and West to respect their sovereignty, stop trying to change their culture, and stop intervening in their internal affairs.

    Reply
    1. FireBaron April 10, 2017

      Can anyone say “Serbia 1914”?

      1. Dominick Vila April 10, 2017

        Or Archduke Franz Ferdinand Ludwig, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne…
        Events that later seem almost inconsequential, often precipitate some of the worst human calamities in history. Let’s hope the modern day leaders whose personal attributes range from ignorance, to arrogance, narcissism, mental instability, and greed find an ounce of common sense and avoid a sequel to the calamities that have been such a preponderant component of human history.

        1. dpaano April 10, 2017

          Wishful thinking, Dom, but we can always hope.

        2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2017

          Yes, what appeared as a minor nationalistic dispute between two territories would ignite like wildfire to become the “War to end all wars”, WW1.
          Little did humanity know that a far worse tragedy would follow, on the heels of the dispute in Serbia.

    2. dpaano April 10, 2017

      It’s too bad that GWB and his puppet master, Cheney, didn’t realize that when they started this whole Middle East mess to begin with! Until they went in and bombed Iraq, there wasn’t a Taliban or an ISIS! We should have left Sadaam and his buddies alone and let them fight it out amongst themselves……to try to “preach” democracy from countries that have been under a king or caliphe is totally impossible…..their culture doesn’t understand democracy or how to start it or deal with it!

  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2017

    Clearly, both sides in American politics have contributed mightily to the current crisis in Syria, in Iran and the rest of the Middle East, with addressing Russia, N. Korea, etc.
    Also, our internal American divisiveness is largely encouraged and worsened by the very concept of partisan politics.

    And to expect this exacerbated rift in America’s notion of governance and its now-antiquated method of governing is radically altered, then we can expect bickering among politicians in protecting their tenures and turfs to forever hamstring the country.

    Think about it—You have a plethora of burgeoning conflicts and challenges arising across the globe, and the only “mature” nations remotely capable on facing the
    challenges are too busy being either inward-looking and concerned about matters of economy and protecting their precious resources while ignoring the less fortunate within their borders and in fellow nations of this tiny postage-stamp of a world called Earth.

    With this childish aspect and way of problem-solving via bickering and posturing, nothing will ever be accomplished in a mature and comprehensive way—just the same old band-aid approach. And making a deal and bluster won’t work either.

    Reply
  3. stsintl April 10, 2017

    What did the missile attacks accomplish besides making huge profits for the Millitary-Industrial Complex and Trump family’s stocks portfolio? Why didn’t he get Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Canada and China to join him? The President of China was right there with him at the time and he had just met the King of Jordan. What happened to his deal making skills? All he did is support ISIS in Syria. And, this is exactly what they wanted from him.

    Reply
    1. dpaano April 10, 2017

      Personally, 45 has NO deal-making skills whatsoever! After all, look at his business before he was president….his bankruptcies, his many loans from various countries to bolster his businesses, etc. He has nothing and certainly NO skills! He hasn’t quite realized that “The Art of the Deal” doesn’t work with foreign countries…..this country cannot be run like a business!

  4. dpaano April 10, 2017

    The problem that 45 didn’t really consider is that we have U.S. troops in Syria fighting with the Kurds, etc. This bombing will NOT be good for their safety. We can expect Assad to retaliate one way or the other…..and it scares me to know which way he’ll go. We can’t afford to fight another on-the-ground war in the Middle East. We’ve lost too many of our young men and women in the last one, which seems to be never ending (thanks to GWB and his puppet master, Cheney). We should NEVER have gone into the Middle East and started this fiasco! 45 is not learning the lesson that GWB learned, and that’s sad!

    Reply
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    2. Whittier5 April 14, 2017

      Drumpf coordinated his attack with the Russians. No real damage was done, except for the 1 Tomahawk that went astray, and the demonstration that over 50% of our Tomahawks could be taken out by Russian-provided Syrian air defense weapons.
      45 is incapable of learning – if you hadn’t noticed already. Was he always this way? Or is it just ‘normal-onset dementia’??

  5. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2017

    Reference was made by earlier and astute comments to events in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the fallout from rising nationalist sentiments raging during the times, which would lead to WW1.

    Franz Josef, the emperor at the time, had recently received a summons from Baha’u’llah warning Franz to forego the excessive stockpiling of weapons, and instead turn his attention to the well-being of the people of the empire. Or else, the consequences would be devastating for him and for the empire.

    Other leaders would, during the same era, receive similar admonitions and warnings—but they all haughtily refused to heed the warning. In Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German-Prussian Empire’s letter, Baha’u’llah included the impression, and I paraphrase, “…We have heard the lamentations of Berlin, not once, but twice…”, in hindsight now, a reference to 2 impending wars which ravaged Germany on 2 separate occasions.

    And here we have Russia, China, and Iran assisting Syria’s Assad to increase his stockpile of weapons—weapons more destructive today than all the combined explosives of both previous major conflicts. One more misstep by Trump and the rest of the world community may leave us no chance to recover as Germany was able to do.

    Reply
  6. Whittier5 April 14, 2017

    Hello, National Memo …. haven’t you gotten the memo, yet? This was a Staged Charade. The Trump Admin alerted the Russians of the impending attack. So, everyone and every flyable plane bugged out. Of the 60 Tomahawks fired, 1 fizzled, Russian-supplied air defenses took out 39, only 20 landed – with none targeted at the runways and only crippled planes on the ground.
    So, now the Russians and everybody else know our Tomahawks are a “paper tiger” and that we don’t shoot to damage.
    Trump’s “Maginot Line” has been exposed.

    Reply
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