Syrian conflict requires clear strategy from Trump

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Syrians walk past damaged buildings on Friday in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. / SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images

Follow @csteditorialsSending American cruise missiles to bomb a Syrian air base was a necessary and forceful response to the shocking chemical attack on a Syrian town that killed 87 people, including 31 children.

But make no mistake: That was just a first step. Now, President Donald Trump must make it abundantly clear what his strategy and goals are. If the United States is to achieve success with its Syrian policy, then allies, opponents and the American people all must clearly understand the United States’ objectives and how it will respond to further provocations.

If by flying Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, the United States was sending a message, then everyone must understand what that message is. Unfortunately, right now, the Trump administration’s approach to Syria remains something of a muddle.

EDITORIAL Follow @csteditorials

Just in the past week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fate would be decided by the Syrian people. Then he said Assad should be ousted. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said removing Assad was not an American priority. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said the United States can’t ignore the “political reality” in Syria.

As for the president himself, he repeatedly proclaimed during his presidential campaign he would put America first and pull back from difficult engagements abroad. He has railed against accepting Syrian refugees into the United States. Back in 2013, he went so far as to advise former President Barack Obama not to attack Syria in response to a chemical attack.

Taken together, that amounts to a very mixed message.

The missile attack, which took place Thursday evening, Chicago time, instantly raised countless questions. Does this change Trump’s oft-repeated assertion that his objective in Syria is to defeat ISIS? Was this simply a humanitarian intervention, and if so, what are his new standards for such interventions? Is Trump now aiming to remove Assad? Thursday afternoon, Tillerson said there would seem to be “no role” for Assad to continue governing the Syrian people. Will Congress get a say before additional attacks? What, exactly, is the end game?

Like health care, Trump is learning that foreign policy is complicated and that taking the wrong step can have severe consequences. Even before the dust settled from the missile strikes, the United States was facing new foreign policy challenges.

The United States needs to work with China to forestall the nuclear threat from North Korea and to dial down tensions in the South China Sea and with Taiwan. Trade issues also need to be ironed out. But China has opposed unilateral American military action in Syria and won’t be pleased that such action took place while its leader was in Florida, shaking hands with Trump.

During the campaign, Trump said closer ties with Russia would be an asset, and he has gone out of his way to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia also is in a position to help the United States combat international terrorism. But Russia — a key patron of Syria — was unhappy with the American missile strike and suspended its air force coordination with the United States in the Syrian skies, saying the United States had violated international law. The suspension of the agreement in congested skies could lead to unintended conflict.

The six-year-old multi-sided Syria civil war has stretched on for too long, but it is an open question whether the U.S. missile strikes will shorten or prolong it. British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn said he fears the unilateral action will intensify the war.

Trump’s decision to send missiles into Syria might prove to be a one-time emotional reaction, or, as cynics suggest, a “wag the dog” way to deflect growing political troubles at home, including the investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign during last year’s presidential race.

What’s needed is a clearly articulated coherent strategy from Trump, one that fully engages the American people. And — we regret the unfortunate necessity of saying this — it must be a statement entirely devoid of “alternative facts.”

Simply giving more confusing signals will make a bad international situation worse.

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