The Trump administration’s military strike on a Syrian government airbase is barely hours old, but it has plunged the 45th US President headlong into the world’s most intractable foreign policy crisis.
Here are five immediate risks:
The strikes may get support from key Western players, Turkey and aligned regional powers. Unity and enthusiasm from these key players is something we’ve rarely seen in this six-year old war.
A big risk here is overreach: that the US, UK, France, Turkey (all experiencing deep domestic political turmoil) and allies believe a moment has appeared in which this sore on the global conscience can be finally fixed, making them all feel better. It can’t. 59 Tomahawks won’t change much
Assad will have to react
He always does. It may not be as blatant as direct attacks on the US military in the region. But it may involve proxies hitting US soft targets nearby, especially if you remember their long history of involvement in neighboring Lebanon.
Donald Trump will likely face fallout, and in a way that is unexpected or unmanageable.
Remember: Assad has been under an effective siege for five years, so the same poor decision making that allegedly led – according to the US and others – to the chemical weapons strike in Idlib, may lead to other bad judgments.
Russia can’t be seen to lose face, so may also respond
Views on the US strike in Syria
Arguably the main point of Russia’s intervention in Syria was to embolden Moscow on the world stage after the crippling effects of sanctions on their economy.
Now they must find an appropriate response to having an airbase – where they have stationed assets – flattened in a US strike.
It may not be military action, and may not be in Syria, but Putin is a master of turning a completely different screw on his opponent. Think about Libya, or Ukraine.
Damascus shrugs and thinks: Is that it?
This goes back to the siege mentality. They clearly made a bad call in testing an inexperienced US president over the Idlib chemical weapons attacks, and incorrectly judged he was too distracted or isolationist to respond.
But they have carried out years of airstrikes – likely killing hundreds of thousands – used starve and surrender tactics, bombed hospitals repeatedly, and carried out at least two savage chemical weapons attacks.
The world’s self-declared moral authority strikes once, and Assad’s regime loses an airfield. For the regime, it could be viewed as an acceptable outcome.
Syria’s curse continues
This risks being the most dangerous side effect. Wars normally end because the sides fighting get tired or run out of combatants and money.
Syria’s curse has been its proxy nature. It’s often other people doing the fighting. There is always a new outside group willing to step in to bolster one of the sides, just when they begin to flag.
The regime has had Hezbollah, then Iran, then Iraqi militia, then Russia. The rebels had Turkey, then the West, then some Gulf states, then al-Qaeda, then (distractingly and damagingly) ISIS, then Turkey again.
Now – unless this one strike really is the only military measure the US takes against Syria’s regime – there risks being yet another player in the mix.
Damascus is currently winning against the rebels. With Idlib appearing to be next in Assad’s sights, the war is hurtling towards a horrifying and bloody end – ghastly, but at least an end.
Continued US actions might weaken Assad’s regime, and give the rebels new life to retake territory, prolonging yet again the violence.
That means more chaos for ISIS, more refugees, and more dead innocent children, like the ones that forced Trump into action.