By: Tomas Penfold Perez
In March of 2011, amidst the coup d’état that overthrew Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, two young Syrian boys in Darah indiscreetly graphitized “hopefully Assad is next” along the blank wall of a school building in a southern Syrian province. The two young boys were detained by government forces and brutally tortured; an act of defiance from Assad against his own people—the first of many.
The civil unrest that ensued in 2011 was a decisive moment in the regrettable history of the civil war in Syria, now going into its seventh year. That wave of pro-democracy protests along the Middle East and North Africa region gave hope to liberal academics and politicians who professed a democratic shift in international governance (quite ironic given today’s protectionist ideals). Such a shift has failed to arise in Syria; instead, the carnation of thousands of Syrians and the migration of millions of others set the foundation for an untimely conflict that will take years, if not decades, to resolve.
Democratic movements like the Arab Spring bring about decisive questions for the country's governing body. Will the citizens be applauded or will they beholden hostage for their actions? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen the latter to the condemnation from international organizations and foreign governments alike.
President Barack Obama appeared at the White House podium in 2013 and declared that “a red line for us [U.S.] is when we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around the world or being utilized.” Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ statement was perhaps a risky political move. Understanding the United States’ embedded history in the Middle East, and Congress’ disapproval of intervening in a foreign civil war, Assad called the president's bluff, completely discrediting Obama’s threat, and then responded with an unthinkable chemical attack.
President Obama was not inclined to act on his own, opting to choose the diplomatic approach to rely on Congress and the American people. This decision is often cited as one of the former President’s biggest foreign policy blunders. What is often dismissed, however, is his administration's coercive diplomatic approach to the peaceful removal of more than 1,300 tons of announced Syrian chemical weapons that had been unknown to many intelligence agencies around the word.
Obama’s conservative approach was perhaps less reprehensible than a military action would have been, and his administration was confident that the immediate removal of the chemical weapons, which could have ended up in the hands of extremist groups like ISIS, was a diplomatic achievement that should be celebrated rather than condemned.
Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, had a different idea. Back in 2013 and 2014, long before he kicked off his presidential campaign, Trump was adamant about not intervening in Syria. He claimed that “Syria is not our problem,” and tweeted that “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement.”
Now that he’s the commander-in-chief, Trump is singing a different tune. On April, 4, 2017 chemical bombings in Syria turned a “northern rebel-held area into a toxic kill zone,” reminiscent of the attacks four years prior that killed 1,500 civilians. Reports suggest that the death toll from the chemical weapons attack has surpassed 80 civilians, including roughly 30 children and 20 women. The Syrian government denied it was behind these attacks.
Two days later, amid worldwide condemnation, President Trump ordered an attack on the Syrian air base from which the chemical attacks were reportedly launched in an attempt to render the infrastructure unusable. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley confirmed that “regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that (Syrian president Bashar al-) Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
Trump’s military action last week, while applauded by foreign leaders and constituents in the capital alike, has revived questions regarding the United States policy the Middle East. Is the Trump administrations number one priority to defeat ISIS? Can they defeat ISIS without attacking the Assad regime? And lastly, is there a diplomatic or political exit plan if the United States entangles itself in another military conflict in the Middle East?
Trump, who repeatedly faulted the Obama administration for having a ‘soft stance’ on Syria and ISIS, has now been granted the unfortunate opportunity to make a decision regarding those matters that will have profound effects in the region and around the world.
Without a political or diplomatic exit strategy, military attacks on Assad’s Syria may pose detrimental problems to the relationship the United States has with allies along the region.The Trump administration must institute a plan for Syria post ISIS/Assad if they wish to continue intervening in a foreign civil war.
Americans, like the majority of the world, want to see ISIS destroyed and Assad controlled; however, doing so in a bipartisan manner without a consensual diplomatic exit plan post ISIS or Assad is inconceivable given the United States past experience in Iraq.
Tomas Penfold Perez is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. He is a Fordham University graduate who majored in International Political Economy and Communications & Media Industries.