I wrote just yesterday that, "Clearly events are pushing Washington to do 'something' about Syria and Assad." A few hours after that post went up, we saw that "something." It was, as I had speculated we might in that same post, "a hail of death and destruction on his air force."
From initial reports (here, for example) it seems that the cruise missile strike on Shayrat air base, a facility used jointly by Syria and Russia, proved effective; the 59 sea-launched Tomahawks hit their designated targets in a remarkable demonstration of US military prowess, technology, and firepower. Let's put it this way: nobody else could have done it--not Europe, not Russia, not China, not Israel. I also must express admiration for Trump's decision-making style. He listened to his people, digested the info provided, quickly decided to hit Syria, and then turned to deal with the visiting Chinese President (more on that). That is a marked difference from the dithering and endless specifying of the recently closed and tiresome eight-year play Obama Agonistes. Trump makes decisions, and moves on. That is a plus for the Presidency of the United States, the country, and the beleaguered community once known as the West. You can like him or not, you can agree with him or not, but the man is a leader.
Was the attack on Syria, merely symbolic as some (here and here, for example) have claimed? Really? I want to find the brave soul who says that while having nearly 60,000 pounds of precisely targeted high explosives rain down on him. I am no military guru and don't play one on the web, but I think this strike was more than symbolic. It, presumably, was also much more robust than what hapless Secretary John "Xmas in Cambodia" Kerry had in mind when he talked about giving Assad one week to turn over his gas stores and then threatening him with an "unbelievably small" attack, which, in fact, never materialized. Kerry later claimed a deal to have Russia remove Syria's gas stores--same sort of deal to prevent Iran's nukes . . . The Trump attack might--we have to wait for the formal damage assessment--have put a serious crimp in Assad's offensive ability and willingness. It might also prompt the Russians to keep him on a shorter leash (more on that).
Was the attack on Syria the opening salvo in yet another war? I have written repeatedly that in the Middle East we have to get out of the "regime change" business. We have right now, as far as I know, no replacement for Assad, and do not have a clear understanding of what much of his opposition consists. I think, I hope, I trust that President Trump knows that. To remove Assad and have him replaced, for example, by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or some other apocalyptic lunatic would hardly comprise progress. I don't think we are seeing the start of a new war; I doubt that President Trump would commit to a full-blown offensive against Assad when the end-game remains so murky, fraught with peril, and, frankly, so marginal to core US interests. I have stated repeatedly that the Israelis who presumably would have the most interest in killing off Assad and his evil clan, have not, despite having the ability to do so. They know how power vacuums get filled in the region. One job for President Trump will be to resist calls for "regime change" from the likes of Senator McCain, Hillary Clinton, and others who seem incapable of learning what that actually means.
How will our opponents view this? Russia is clearly unhappy. I expect that the quickness and ferocity of the US response might have caught the Russians by surprise. They might well see the arrival of Trump on the scene as a sign that their free ride in the region is over. They will come to miss the days of Obama and Kerry.
Putin, however, is not a mad man or a crazy "all on black" gambler. His government issued the expected condemnations, but the response, actually, has been rather subdued. Whatever the Russians say, they must appreciate that our military gave theirs a short-lead heads-up so that they could move assets out of the target area. As far as I know, Secretary Tillerson is still on for his visit to Moscow next week. The world has not come to an end. Russia probably will now try to exercise a bit more control on Assad in exchange for propping him up. I suspect that the price for Russian support just went up. We'll see if Assad and Russia learn to tread more carefully in the future. If they don't? We will have to decide just how important Syria is to us.
China, North Korea, and Iran must not be happy campers this morning. I wonder how pleased the Chinese president is to have been in Florida with President Trump when the US attacked Syria. There must be a mix of chagrin and admiration for Trump. The lessons for Iran and North Korea could not be clearer. Trump apparently will act without a lot of warning. Fat Boy Kim must be eating a lot of Ben & Jerry's as comfort food right now. The Mad Mullahs are probably gathered and wondering what has happened to the cushy deal they previously had with the USA.
Now to some basics. I have written before wondering why it is that death by gas strikes us as more horrific than, say, death by napalm or by a .223 round. As I noted in the just linked piece which I wrote almost four years ago,
Despite the temptation, the US did not use gas against well-entrenched Japanese troops in the Pacific, even when gas likely could have saved many American lives. FDR did not want to be known as the President who used gas--he, of course, was developing an atomic bomb . . .We wouldn't use gas against Japan but used two atomic bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention burning nearly all of their other cities to the ground, and flushing their troops out of caves with flame throwers--all justifiable, by the way.
Would we have bombed Assad, if he had merely used conventional explosives delivered by either artillery or aircraft to kill 80 civilians? Are those killed by gas more dead than those killed by explosives? Last July, vacationers in the beautiful French city of Nice were attacked by a jumped up jihadi driving a large truck; he killed over 80 persons. I saw no visible French retaliation against the Muslim world or truck makers.
OK, I don't want to push this too far, but let me just conclude with a question: Is Assad, despicable as he is, and his alleged use of gas a threat to the United States? We, as noted above, will all have to decide, I guess.