Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

Donald Trump’s welcome show of U.S. global leadership

| Apr. 07, 2017

The best way to now help Syrians would be to open America’s doors to refugees

In his most consequential national security decision to date, President Donald Trump was right to order US air strikes against the Syrian air force on Friday morning. President Bashar al-Assad’s repeated chemical weapons attacks against his civilian population called for a forceful international response. By ordering a targeted cruise missile strike, Mr Trump sent an unmistakable warning to Mr Assad that any further assaults against defenceless civilians will not be tolerated.
The most surprising aspect of this military action by the new president was its speed. Ordinarily, American leaders would have taken considerable time to assess the risky trade-offs in deploying military force in such a difficult and dangerous environment. Mr Trump’s rapid fire attacks were surely meant to send a signal well beyond Damascus to Iran and Middle East terrorist groups that he will act quickly to defend US interests when provoked.
The strikes were also a warning to Russia that it no longer has sole sway over events in Syria. And Mr Trump’s guest at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, President Xi Jinping of China, undoubtedly now understands that the US president believes he has options in reining in the dangerous and unpredictable North Korean regime. During the 2016 election campaign Mr Trump insisted that he would return strength and decisiveness to American global leadership. The Syria strikes are the first demonstration of that resolve.
The US administration has hinted, however, that the attack was a singular event and does not presage a wider US military involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. Still, Mr Trump will now be expected to articulate a more detailed strategy for how the US intends to help stem the violence and bloodshed that have left more than half a million Syrians dead and millions more homeless in the world’s most tragic humanitarian conflict. This is a far more demanding calculus for an administration focused to date solely on combating Isis rather than the Assad government.
The options available are all daunting, making Syria one of the most truly complicated issues on the global agenda. President Barack Obama concluded that the risks of action in the mosh pit of Syria’s tangled civil war were far greater than those of doing nothing.
Turkey is pressing the US to join in establishing safe zones and a no-flight zone along its border with Syria to protect civilians and keep rival militias at bay. Mr Trump expressed interest recently in just this idea, but it would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off. Doing so could also put the US president on a collision course with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Russia’s forces, along with Iran and the Syrian army, are the strongest inside the war-ravaged country.
The US, Turkey and local militias would need to carve out a zone inside Syria that they could control and use to repel both the Assad army and terrorist groups such as Isis and the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. It would require a sizeable presence of US and other ground forces as well as a permanent presence of air power to patrol an already crowded, dangerous airspace. Mr Trump’s most difficult task would be to convince a sceptical Congress and American public while memories of the tortuous Iraq war are still vivid.
Alternatively, the US could launch a diplomatic challenge to Mr Assad, Russia and Iran to commit to a serious negotiation with rebel groups about a ceasefire in war-torn Idlib province and eventual talks to end the war itself. This is the Mount Everest of international politics and would require months if not years of patient, painstaking, complex diplomacy. Does Mr Trump have the grit and patience for such an effort?
The most direct way the president could help Syria’s besieged population would be to open America’s doors to Syrian refugees. In every previous refugee crisis since the second world war, the US has taken in half the total refugees to be resettled. Mr Trump’s determination to prevent a single Syrian refugee from entering the US is now called into question by his air strikes. The US can no longer easily stand by and do nothing while Syrians are trapped in desperate refugee camps. If Mr Trump continues to ban all refugees, he will be rightly accused of hypocrisy by the Syrian people and Europeans who have welcomed more than a million refugees.
The Syria strikes have also taught us much about Mr Trump as Commander-in-Chief. His decisive action has restored some of America’s lost credibility in a violent, unstable Middle East. It is an early sign of his inner convictions.
But, the astonishing quickness with which he shifted course this week also illustrates the brash and impulsive side of his character. This was a relatively straightforward mission that earned the support of European and Arab leaders. Yet Mr Trump’s penchant to shoot from the hip and pay scant attention to details and the law of unintended consequences in wartime could also spell trouble ahead. It could even lead to disaster in a future crisis with a more powerful adversary such as North Korea.
Lest the initial plaudits of his Syria strike mislead him, Mr Trump would do well to tread carefully as he traverses the Middle East and global minefields ahead.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“Donald Trump’s welcome show of U.S. global leadership.” Financial Times, April 7, 2017.