President Donald Trump’s decision to fire dozens of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base Thursday evening, in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, was the commander-in-chief’s first major foray into war.
While the next steps remain unclear, several strategic and political consequences are already apparent.
The first is that “red lines” are “red lines” again. Whatever the pros or cons of Trump’s decision, he promised to take action, and he followed through. Trump thus restored American credibility in the international arena, while retaining the tactical element of surprise. The contrast to President Barack Obama is clear. America is safer for that alone.
Beyond that, there are several other consequences in the region and beyond, which are worth considering individually:
1. Syria/Iran. Last week, the Trump administration appeared to accept Bashar al-Assad’s permanence in power. That may have been a trial balloon, to see whether he would respond positively. When Assad allegedly accelerated his attacks instead, that sent a signal that he could not be trusted, and would not respect the White House for its tolerance. The new strategy is “regime change” — following the defeat of the Islamic State, which still remains the first priority.
But it is unclear what “regime change” means, how it would be done, and whether it could succeed. Syria is essentially a vassal of Russia and Iran, meaning that pushing Assad out would require a significant commitment of diplomatic and military resources. Direct conflict with Russia is unlikely — the Russians would trade Assad for a permanent presence in the country — but war with Iran is a possibility (and might be unavoidable with or without the U.S. attacking Syria).
2. China, North Korea. The most important strategic consequence of Thursday night’s attack was the message that it sent to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was seated at dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago while the Tomahawks were flying. Trump let the Chinese know that he is capable of taking pre-emptive military action and that he keeps his word. If China does not reel in North Korea, in other words, Trump will follow through on his commitment to go to war there.
3. Russia. Overtures aside, the Russians have been testing Trump’s resolve since he became president. (The supposed Russian collusion with Trump during the election remains, until proven otherwise, a myth embraced by Democrats for self-serving political ends.) The Russians took responsibility for disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons. Trump has let them know he expects them to uphold their end of the bargain and that there will be real consequences for negligence. He is not going to erase Russia’s strategic gains under Obama, but he is not going to watch them expand on his watch.
4. Islamic State. ISIS could draw two conclusions from Thursday night’s attack. On the one hand, Trump struck a blow against one of their enemies. On the other, he demonstrated a commitment to follow through on his military promises. Strategically, the attack is a wash — unless Trump can strengthen the international commitment to fighting ISIS as part of the effort to remove Assad from power. The world does not want to hand power to the medieval butchers of Raqqa.
One point remains unresolved, at least for skeptics of the war: whether the chemical weapons strike earlier this week was really a Syrian government operation, or a “false flag” aimed at provoking an American response. (Such tactics are not unusual in the Arab world, especially in the age of satellite television and social media propaganda.) It appears that the White House is confident in the intelligence linking the regime to the attack; it should share that, within reason.
5. Israel. Israel has been striking targets inside Syria for years, either when it detects weapons shipments to Hizbollah or when it is fired on by forces inside Syrian territory. What is most significant about Trump’s attack is that it partially restores the U.S. deterrent in the region and sends a signal to Iran that its nuclear program is no longer free and clear. In addition, the general applause with which America’s Arab allies have greeted the air strikes is a sign that Trump’s effort to bring the Sunni states together with Israel in a regional alliance against Iran and its proxies may be coming together.
6. Domestic politics. Democrats on Capitol Hill have offered cautious support for Trump’s actions; the usual anti-war suspects have condemned him. Some “NeverTrump” hawks have praised the president’s decision. The most interesting and important reactions have come from Trump’s own supporters, who are divided. Some are proud of their president’s strength — especially when contrasted to years of waffling and “lead-from-behind” indecision by Obama. Others are irate, reminding Trump that he promised them in 2016 he would not launch reckless wars to achieve “regime change.”
The ultimate political outcomes will depend on Trump’s success on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Amidst the many opinions, it is useful to remember that anyone who is certain of anything in the Middle East is usually wrong.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.