U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

April 07, 2017

Missile strikes on Syria show Trump administration knows it must end de facto U.S. partnership with Assad, Iran and Russia

Originally published in New York Daily News

The U.S. missile strikes against Syrian military targets are a critical first step toward reorienting America's approach to that conflict and to the region.

They show that the Trump administration knows it cannot continue the de facto partnership former President Barack Obama established with Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia.

The latest chemical weapons attack — unquestionably carried out by Assad's forces — violated the 2013 agreement Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered to remove all chemical weapons from Syria and ban their future production or use.

Russian troops and planes are deployed throughout Syria; Russian military advisers work with the Syrian armed forces at the highest levels. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Russians knew Assad was violating that agreement and at least tacitly were conniving with him to do so. Putin demonstrated once again that he simply is not a reliable partner.

Assad cannot be America's partner either, as the administration has now recognized. His atrocities go far beyond chemical attacks and include barrel bombs, deliberate mass starvations, the deliberate targeting of civilians and other war crimes.

These outrages are not merely illegal and repulsive. They make America less safe. They have fueled ISIS and Al Qaeda recruiting. They have radicalized the Sunni Arab population in Syria and people around the world. They are strengthening our enemies even as Assad has focused on destroying the moderate opposition groups we had been supporting — rather than fighting ISIS.

U.S. inaction after Assad's first mass chemical attack (crossing President Obama's red line) made America appear complicit with Assad's crimes. Russian aircraft began attacking the opposition on Assad's behalf in late 2015, and the U.S. "de-conflicted" with them to avoid air accidents.  The Russians dropped precision weapons on breadlines and hospitals — and the U.S. did nothing to stop them. We have transferred the hatred and opprobrium resulting from the crimes of Russia, Iran and Assad to ourselves.

President Trump's decision to attack the airfield from which the most recent chemical attack was launched must be the start of a new strategy. It must begin a campaign to drive the Assad regime to compromise. It must be the start of an effort to regain the confidence of Sunni Arabs in Syria and around the world that the U.S. stands with them against all those who would attack them, ISIS and Al Qaeda as well as Iran and its proxies.

This new strategy must be thoughtful as well as decisive. The U.S. missile attack was designed to avoid causing Russian casualties, and America should continue to try to avoid direct conflict with Russia and with Iran. It showed, however, that The U.S. will not allow fear of such a conflict to force us to a policy of total passivitythe U.S. will not allow fear of such a conflict to force us to a policy of total passivity. A prudent strategy will continue to manage escalation while simultaneously opening new possibilities for American action in our own national security interests.

Some will criticize these strikes as a diversion from the fight against ISIS. Such criticism would be badly misplaced. Stopping Assad's barbarity is as central to defeating ISIS as any direct military action against the group. The U.S. must work to dampen the flames of sectarian war in Syria by pressing extremists on both sides — ISIS and Al Qaeda among the Sunni; Assad and his Iranian allies among the Alawites. Only when the extremists are marginalized and moderates re-empowered can we hope to end the serious threat to America's security now emanating from Syria. Trump's actions offer some hope of accomplishing that aim.