If the sole criteria by which U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions in Syria should be judged are to be compared with his predecessor, then perhaps the claim of a “mission accomplished” might be accurate. Stacked up against President Barack Obama’s epic failures in Syria, Trump doesn’t look so bad. But even if he were not describing the American-led strikes on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s chemical-weapons capability with that cringe-inducing phrase, we would still have to judge Trump’s actions as, at this point in time, very much a mission left unaccomplished.
As the White House has made clear, the missile strikes were strictly a one-off event, entirely disconnected from any overall strategy to deal with the threat posed by a Syria dominated by Russia and occupied by Iranian forces determined to turn that country into a front against Israel. Just as troubling is the signal from Washington that the president is planning, despite appeals from his national-security team and American allies, to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria after the defeat of ISIS is also deemed complete.
While Trump was moved, as he should have been, by Assad’s atrocities against civilians to strike at the Syrian dictator’s forces, he isn’t prepared to do anything more than that or act in a meaningful way to stop the slaughter in that country. Despite the missiles, Trump is maintaining Obama’s policy of punting Syria to Russia and treating Iran’s provocative takeover there as something of no interest to the United States. He’s also apparently prepared to stand by and let a successor Islamist group fill the vacuum left by the United States withdrawal, just as happened after Obama pulled out of Iraq and stayed out of Syria—the exact events that led to the rise of ISIS.
Americans can take some satisfaction that the United States is not prepared to let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished, as was the case with Obama’s humiliating “red line” retreat. By the same token, they should applaud the progress that American-led forces have made in the fight against ISIS. Trump’s loosening of the rules of engagement transformed the stalemate he inherited from Obama into a rout of the Islamists.
But no one should be fooled by the spectacle of the allied attacks on Assad’s chemical-weapons capability into thinking that America is doing anything meaningful about what is arguably the worst human-rights catastrophe of the 21st century. Nor should it escape anyone’s notice that Trump’s policies are essentially leaving Israel alone to face a deadly threat on its northern border.
The problem here is just the opposite of the chaos obsessed over by the president’s detractors. The issue in Syria is Trump’s unwillingness to confront a basic contradiction in his foreign-policy outlook that has been glaringly obvious since he first began campaigning for the presidency. He still can’t seem to grasp that you can’t be tough on Iran while being soft on Russia. If the United States is to mount a meaningful campaign—as Trump has often said he would—to roll back Iran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony by a nuclear deal that has enriched and empowered it, it must be part of an approach that takes into account that Tehran’s most dangerous conduct is being enabled by Russia.
The other contradiction is that while Trump has been extremely supportive of Israel in many ways, he’s also ignoring what is rapidly becoming the most lethal threat to its security: Iran’s presence in Syria.
Friends of Israel should be grateful to Trump by discarding the foreign-policy establishment’s warnings about recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital and for ending Obama’s policy of trying to create more daylight between America and its sole democratic ally. He’s also right—and the supposed “adults” wrong—when he speaks of the dangers inherent in an Iran nuclear deal that must be renegotiated if Tehran is to be prevented from eventually gaining such a weapon.
But that doesn’t give him a pass for deciding that Syria is merely a theater for dramatic U.S. gestures, rather than the pivotal issue that may decide whether another war in the Middle East is inevitable.
If the message Trump is sending to Assad is that he can go on killing people—though not with chemical weapons—that is just as much of an abdication of America’s moral authority as Obama’s spineless responses.
Just as troubling is the idea that the message Trump is sending to Russia is that it shouldn’t interpret the president’s histrionics as an indication that the United States is still interested in engaging in the region.
Worst of all is that Iran is likely interpreting Trump’s gestures as a sign that the United States doesn’t regard its building of military bases and weapons factories in Syria as an issue it cares about. If America is telling Russia that it won’t demand that Vladimir Putin restrain Iran or push it out of Syria, then Israel is being left to fend for itself as a problem the Americans helped create gets out of control.
For all of the good Trump has done for Israel in the last 14 months, leaving it alone to deal with Iran and Russia in Syria is simply too dangerous. Israel must balance the need to maintain relations with Russia—now the region’s leading power—with the imperative to prevent Iran from threatening its safety. If Trump doesn’t understand that simply abandoning Israel in this manner is an invitation to Iranian aggression and a new Middle East war, and that this is profoundly precarious for U.S. interests and security, then he’s just as foolish as his enemies claim him to be.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.