Nearly four years ago President Obama was poised to fire cruise missiles into Syria because the regime of Bashar Assad had crossed his so-called “red line” and continued to launch poison gas weapons against his citizens.
Saudi Arabia had pressured the United States to ensure the strike would be more than a “pinprick.” The French government had dispatched a warship to waters off Syria to back up the US naval task force preparing for the cruise missile barrage.
But at the eleventh hour, Russia suddenly intervened. Vladimir Putin announced that Syria was prepared to have all of its 1,000 metric tons of nerve, VX and mustard gas weapons destroyed. Until that moment Assad had insisted he had no such weapons. But after the Russian intercession, he changed his tune and agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, vowing not to manufacture, store or use poison gas.
Obama was not anxious to take offensive action that might conceivably draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, and thus accepted the Russian-Syrian initiative.
In effect, although Assad was on the cusp of losing the war, that initiative saved him and assured that he could continue to bloody those who opposed his regime, assaulting them with barrel bombs and other conventional weapons.
It was not long until Russia inserted combat aircraft into Syria which, alongside iranian forces and Hezbollah troops from Lebanon, helped to tilt the war in Assad’s favor.
That was the scenario faced by President Donald Trump, who had suggested in his presidential campaign that he was determined to destroy ISIS, but could live with Assad. But graphic scenes of children and babies being gassed by nerve agents changed his mind and his policy.
A traumatized Trump said the specter of babies being gassed crossed many of his red lines and, having asked his national security team for options, decided to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian air base from which the nerve gas had been launched.
The surprisingly decisive action, from a President who had been viewed as leaning toward “America First” isolationism, was cheered by US allies in Europe and the Middle East. Leaders of both parties on the Hill also joined the bandwagon, although some said he should have sought Congressional authorization.
Putin and Assad insisted vociferously that this was a frame-up and that Syria had not gassed its citizens. But US intelligence said it had intercepted conversations of Syrian air force personnel discussing the upcoming nerve gas operation.
Were the Russians complicit? Surely the air base where the nerve gas was stored would have kept the weapons in secure, off-limits bunkers, with sentries and signs to keep people away.
There is no way that such weapons would have been removed from such a bunker and loaded onto an aircraft without the Russian contingent on the base being aware.
Will Trump follow up that raid by establishing a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border? He dangled that possibility during his campaign. Hillary Clinton had, in fact, unsuccessfully urged such a move on Obnma some years ago.
-This blog was also run by the World Policy Institute.