U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to attack key chemical-weapons facilities in Syria raises critical questions, including whether the limited punitive missile strikes by America, Great Britain and France were too mild against a ruthless dictator that has used chemical weapons against his own constituents in a civil war now responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 Syrians.
In deciding how to respond to the usage of chemical weapons, the United States was forced to ask itself whether the world’s largest superpower and its allies were ready to become deeply embroiled in a conflict for which there seems to be no simple solution.
While Americans typically look for immediate results for critical problems, Middle Eastern culture often prohibits solution-first thinking. Cultural patterns at play in Syria offer insight into why a brutal civil war has raged without a solution for seven years now.
The boundaries of modern-day Syria, like many of the countries in the Middle East, are Western inventions with little historical basis. A key to understanding the conflict is to note that the various religious and ethnic groups fighting for survival in modern Syria do not see themselves first and foremost as Syrians. Rather, they identify themselves first as Sunni Muslims, Shiites, different Christian sects, Alawites, Druze and Kurds. And within these primary ethnic distinctions are numerous sub-groups that all-too-often maintain long-standing grievances towards each other.
Of these sects, the only one that has proven itself to be an ally of the United States—and worthy of American support—is the Kurdish minority residing in the northeast section of modern-day Syria. All other religious and ethnic groups with a stake in Syria, including foreign actors Turkey, Iran and Russia, have proven to the contrary that they are by no means pro-American.
Within this context, it becomes easier to understand how Syrian President Bashar Assad could use chemical weapons on citizens of his own nation. Within this cultural worldview, it can be said that Assad used chemical weapons against Sunni Muslims. Assad is an Alawite, a minority ethnic group that is marginally allied with the Shiites. He therefore does not view Sunnis as fellow Syrians, but rather as historic enemies who have oppressed Alawites for many centuries.
In the ethno-religious worldview, Assad’s attacks are “righting a historic wrong” done to his people by the Sunnis.
Historically throughout the Middle East, when there has not been a single central power strong enough to enforce its will and maintain order among neighboring ethnic sects and regional actors, chaos will reign. This situation is playing out today in Syria and has often played itself out throughout the Arab world, as well as in Iranian and Turkish cultures.
All too often in the Middle East, if one side loses a battle, it licks its wounds and lies in waiting until it can exact revenge on those whom they see as having wronged or shamed them—even if that means waiting years to strike back.
Such patterns similarly explain why, after more than 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, there is still no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Few options to end the conflict anytime soon seem currently viable. While one possible outcome may include dividing Syria into multiple nation states along religious and ethnic lines, such a solution does not yet seem enforceable.
One might suggest then that America should continue striking in Syria until Assad is brought down. Yet doing so is only likely to increase chaos and invite a revenge-induced bloodbath against Assad’s fellow Alawites, which numbered approximately 2.5 million before the Syrian internal conflict. America and its allies would be blamed for such an outcome. Neither the American people nor its allies should shoulder that blame.
To stop the sectarian violence that has now killed in excess of 500,000 Syrians, America would need to enforce total order in Syria—a process that would be extremely costly and would ultimately take years, if it could be accomplished at all. At the present, America and its democratic allies are not up for this thankless task.
If America and its allies cannot stop the fighting, then why have they drawn a red line and decided to strike against Assad’s chemical-weapons capabilities? Why have they gotten involved in the Syrian conflict at all? The reason extends well beyond the borders of Syria.
Assad, though certainly high on the list, is not the world’s only ruthless dictator. With his usage of chemical weapons, other dictators, including the regimes in Iran and North Korea, are watching America like hawks. If the United States did not react forcefully to the usage of chemical weapons—a clear violation of international red lines—then a powerful message would have been sent to Iran, North Korea and other dictators that they, too, could use chemical weapons against their enemies with little worry that the international community would lift a finger against them.
President Trump had no choice but to attack Assad’s chemical-weapons targets. At the same time, any more than a limited attack could easily drag America into the wider Syrian conflict with no possible solution or exit strategy.
If Assad gets the message and curbs any further use of weapons of mass destruction, America will remain on the sidelines of this brutal conflict. Yet if he hasn’t been deterred by the response this time, then the United States and its allies will have little choice but to strike again.
Given the circumstances, President Trump’s response was the right move.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman history and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.