In fairness to President Trump, he is facing a genuinely perplexing and agonizing dilemma following the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria—one that any president would struggle with.
How can Bashar al-Assad be held responsible for a serious breach of international law, and others be deterred from similar violations, without the U.S. risking either further escalation of our military intervention in Syria or outright conflict with Assad’s patron, Russia? To make matters even worse, the action Trump does take against Assad is likely to only prolong Syria’s suffering.
In effect, any U.S. strike that does not topple the regime—which the administration has made clear it does not want to do, understandably given the chaotic state of Syria—or does not provoke an all-out war with Russia is unlikely to deter his behavior. But it could weaken him just enough, and bolster his opponents just enough, to keep the conflict going a little longer. It could also prompt Assad’s international backers to increase their level of support for the regime.
Historical data bears this dynamic out, according to scholars who study civil wars. “All the evidence suggests that military intervention will prolong the conflict,” Patrick Regan, a professor of international relations at Notre Dame, told me. “People might quibble over the strength of the relationship but hardly over the direction of it.” Regan has studied the impact of “third party interventions” on the duration of 150 intrastate conflicts—civil wars—between 1945 and 1999, finding that they dramatically reduce the likelihood of conflicts ending, particularly when those interventions lead to opposing interventions on the other side of the conflict.
This has been exactly the dilemma for years in Syria, where any action taken by the United States and its allies against Assad has prompted his allies, Russia and Iran, to increase their support for him. As journalist Arash Karami noted on Twitter recently, “It seems Trump is going to bomb the Syrian army just to the point of prolonging the war. Which is the opposite of the Obama doctrine of arming the opposition just to the point of prolonging the war.”
Page Fortna, a Columbia University political scientist who studies civil wars and peacekeeping, agrees that if the intervention has any effect at all, it’s likely to only prolong the conflict “unless it was going to be such a big intervention that it turns the tide, and I can’t see that happening at this point.” Nonetheless, she suggests that there’s still a case for giving Assad a “slap on the wrist,” even knowing it’s not likely to do much immediate good for Syria, simply to uphold the global norm against using chemical weapons and making it clear that there are consequences for violating it. “There’s some value to upholding the norm, just for the sake of upholding the norm, doing something that makes those words not completely empty,” she says, acknowledging that this is likely cold comfort to the victims of the recent chemical attack.
In contrast to interventions carried out during a conflict, there is evidence showing the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations once conflicts end, despite the gloating from the Trump administration over cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget last year. Unfortunately, that sort of intervention is unlikely to come into play in Syria, suspects Fortna, author of the book Does Peacekeeping Work? “At this point, this war is likely to end with a pretty crushing defeat,” she says. “There’s not going to be a side that could start it up again, so there’s not going to be much of a need for peacekeeping.”
Could anything the outside world does make a real difference? According to Regan, “The only evidence that shows a reduction in the lethality or duration of a conflict is through external mediation, through negotiation—diplomatic-style intervention.”
Given the Trump administration’s lack of diplomatic follow-through after the last missile strike on Assad, its general disdain for multilateral diplomacy, and the current lack of a sitting secretary of state, that’s also not particularly encouraging.