Donald Trump spent his initial weeks in office promising to make a decisive break from what he described as years of failed Obama administration policies toward Israel, ISIS, China, and Russia — only to basically keep all of Obama’s policies in place.
The high-risk decision to strike a Syrian military target means that Trump was willing to do something his predecessor would not: bomb a facility controlled by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the first time since the country descended into civil war nearly six years ago.
It’s the most significant military move that Trump has authorized as president, and there are three things to note about it — each of which may offer a clue as to what kind of commander in chief Trump will ultimately prove to be.
First, Trump made the decision extraordinarily quickly. Former President Barack Obama had famously warned that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and trigger a direct US military response, but ultimately shied away from using force even after Assad gassed more than 1,500 people to death in 2013. The Obama administration spent the next three years bitterly divided over whether, or how, to take action against Assad.
Trump had no such compunction. The suspected sarin gas attack that killed 85 Syrians took place Tuesday; the first barrage of US Tomahawk cruise missiles crashed into Syria’s al-Shayrat airfield less than three days later.
Second, Trump — despite his harsh rhetoric about how Assad’s “heinous” chemical attack was an “affront to humanity” — ultimately ordered an extremely limited military operation. The US hit the airbase with 59 cruise missiles but didn’t send in warplanes, armed drones, or other heavier weaponry. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis presented Trump with an array of military options, some more intensive than others; Trump chose one of the mildest of them.
Third, Trump’s late-night statement announcing the strike stressed that it targeted a single, very specific target that was directly tied to the chemical weapons attack.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, the implication was that Trump has no desire to launch any more strikes unless Assad uses more chemical weapons. If Assad sticks to his normal tactics, and kills children with explosives rather than banned chemicals, then the United States will leave him alone. This attack will, it seems, be a one-off — or at least part of a relatively small battery of punitive strikes.
Trump and his aides may be hoping that the missile strike will add a new sense of urgency to the moribund Syrian peace talks and perhaps even pave the way for Assad’s eventual departure.
That will only happen if Russia wants it to; Vladimir Putin is Assad’s closest overseas ally and has sent troops, warplanes, and other weaponry into Syria to help Assad maintain his hold on power. Persuading the Kremlin to cut Assad loose will require sustained and sophisticated US diplomatic maneuvering, something neither Trump nor his team have yet shown themselves capable of pulling off.
Trump’s Syria dilemma doesn’t end just because he bombed an airfield
There will be other challenges facing Trump in the days and weeks ahead. Assad may try to use chemical weapons again to test Trump’s resolve and see if the new president — a mercurial leader known for his impatience — is willing to continually mount pinprick operations that don’t seriously change the course of the war.
Key American allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are likely to try to convince Trump that he didn’t go far enough and should take much stronger steps against Assad, even at the risk of further escalating the conflict.
For Commander in Chief Trump, in other words, the hard work is just beginning.