The questions Trump needs to answer after Syria strike

Aftermath of US strike on Syria airbase
Aftermath of US strike on Syria airbase

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Story highlights

  • Danielle Pletka: The Syria situation is a mess of almost epic proportions
  • US military strike against a Syrian airfield on Thursday night raises questions, she says

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)President Donald Trump surprised many Thursday night when he ordered the launch of Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airfield. The narrative is fairly straightforward: Shayrat airfield was allegedly used by Syrian government forces to strike the civilian population south of Idlib with sarin nerve gas. The chemical weapons attack, one in a pattern of such attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, took place under the nose of Russian forces, which may have been aware of the nature of the attack.

Danielle Pletka
Like it or not, this is a decisive and precise strike against a target directly implicated in the murder of civilians, including children. But that's where the straightforward story ends, at least for now.
There are a variety of questions the Shayrat strike raises, not least among them the political questions about Trump's own decision-making. But let's set that aside for a moment and talk about Syria.
    The Assad regime, in partnership with its Iranian and Russian allies, have been engaged in a pitched battle to restore all of Syria to Assad's nominal control (I say nominal because, of course, Assad was an Iranian puppet long before the Arab Spring, and Russia presumably has no intention of restoring the port of Tartus to its pal Bashar in the event he reigns once again).
    The Obama administration, despite initial unhappiness with the whole Syria mess and Assad himself, largely stood by watching the systematic murder of around half a million Syrians, by some estimates, and fretting whether the feelings of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be hurt if the United States lifted more than a finger to oppose Assad. ISIS, al Qaeda and a variety of other nasties were the greatest beneficiaries of Western indifference and now control major swathes of Syria.
    The Syria situation is a mess of almost epic proportions, and even the limited strategy pursued by the Obama administration did much to empower Iran, Russia, al Qaeda and other enemies without advancing the goal of stabilizing Syria. Early in the conflict, before Russians were on the ground, Jack Keane and I twice laid out in The Wall Street Journal options that might have shifted the balance of power in favor of US-backed Syrian forces not aligned with terrorists. In each case, we emphasized the vital importance of taking out the airfields that were allowing both the resupply of weapons to Assad and his Iranian cronies (and now the Russians), and permitting those forces air dominance over Syria.
    But the Obama administration was never down with the idea of hitting Assad in any way. Now the United States has for the first time rendered such an airfield unusable. But as General Keane pointed out Thursday night on Fox News, there are more airfields at the Syrian/Russian/Iranian's disposal. And a standoff approach to Syria will no longer work.
    What should Trump do? What can Trump do? In terms of strategy, my colleagues Fred Kagan and Kim Kagan and her team at the Institute for the Study of War have laid out a plan to shift the balance in Syria (and Iraq), wrest momentum away from terrorist groups, tamp down the likely confrontation between Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni forces over upcoming territorial victories in both Iraq and Syria, and do so without a massive US troop commitment. But this is a strategy for victory, not a pathway to slinking away, nor a bank shot that enables us to ultimately shift power back to Assad in the name of stability. And what none of us know, at least at this moment, is whether Donald Trump is looking for a strategy, or whether he is simply horrified by the sarin attack and took a tactical shot.
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    Many in Washington and around the country profess to know Donald Trump and his mind. And to be fair, his posture as candidate for president never once suggested that before 100 days were out, he would be launching TLAMs into Syria. If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said he was on track to favor an Assad-led solution that met his goal of defeating ISIS, and nothing else.
    But yesterday is no more. Can Trump explain to those supporters most outraged by his actions (including the fringe loonies who labeled the sarin attack a "false flag operation") why he did what he did? Does the vast mass of his supporters give a damn about what he chooses to do in Syria? Is he looking for a long-term solution to the ISIS and al Qaeda challenge in the Middle East? None of those questions has a clear answer.
    Let us hope that in the days to come, the new President and his national security team will make clear that the Trump administration has a strategy to defeat our enemies and to renew the American people's support for decisive US leadership that will keep us safe, begin to end terror's scourge, start the resolution of the refugee problem and turn around the weakness of the last eight years. Let us hope.