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Trump's Impossible Choice in Syria

Should the U.S. retaliate after the latest deadly airstrike in Syria?
Smoke billows in the town of Douma on April 7th, 2018, after Syrian regime troops resumed a military blitz to pressure rebels to withdraw.

Smoke billows in the town of Douma on April 7th, 2018, after Syrian regime troops resumed a military blitz to pressure rebels to withdraw.

Nearly five years ago, rockets containing sarin nerve agent, a highly toxic chemical weapon, bombarded Syrian rebels hunkered down across several neighborhoods in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The United States government's preliminary assessment determined that the strikes killed around 1,429 people, including 426 children. It marked the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq War. President Barack Obama vowed that Bashar al-Assad's regime would face "international consequences" for the offense.

History has repeated itself. Over the weekend, yet another suspected chemical attack, perpetrated on yet another rebel-occupied Damascus suburb, has killed "dozens" of civilians, according to the New York Times. As with the Ghouta attack, international observers and air groups have roundly accused forces loyal to the Assad regime of responsibility. There's also been a threat of military action by the U.S., and President Donald Trump leveled a stern warning to the Assad regime (along with its allies, Iran and Russia) of a "big price" to pay for the incident.

But where Obama's response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria marked a first step into the country's complicated civil war (Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria wouldn't kick off until October of 2014), Trump's is an about-face amid a relative victory in the Global War on Terror. With ISIS routed in major strongholds like Raqqa and Mosul, every geopolitical player has effectively declared victory against the terror network in Syria. In fact, just days before last week's attack outside Damascus, Trump said that he "want[ed] to bring our troops back home." After all, OIR officials have insisted for months that coalition forces are there to fight ISIS, not the Assad regime. When, then, is it time for the U.S. to pack up and go?

The clear choice would seem to be to bail now. A pull-out would make good on Trump's years-long call for non-intervention in Syria. The Pentagon would likely continue to conduct aggressive airstrikes against terror targets in the country, but a wind-down in OIR operations would continue to free up military personnel for the Department of Defense's pivot back to fighting the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. Besides, the Assad regime has effectively won the war against the U.S.-backed Syrian and Kurdish rebels.

Then again, that's the problem: Pulling out would mean looking like a coward, especially after the Assad regime's attacks over the weekend essentially challenged all of Trump's tough talk. Tough talk which, it must be noted, did seem to be working, at least with North Korea. Last month, the Trump administration announced plans for the commander-in-chief to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—a meeting that was planned without any real involvement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. On Sunday, the Trump administration told Fox News that North Korea intended to discuss denuclearization at the meeting. For a president who is seen by many as an unfit dealmaker in D.C., steamrolling the Department of State has actually seemed a tenable geopolitical strategy.

But that also means Trump has more to prove. Having already lobbed a salvo of missiles at Syrian military installations in response to previous chemical attacks, an emboldened Trump seems more likely to attempt another non-nuclear jab at the Assad regime. But throwing the U.S. military into another geopolitical snafu without fully considering the various strategic dimensions of such an action is a reversal back into the War on Terror—and, more importantly, deflates the kind-of victory that Trump wrought with North Korea. On the campaign trail, Trump promised Americans they'd be "sick and tired of winning"; the last thing he needs now is a vainglorious blunder.

In some ways, the back-and-forth on Syria wrought by the weekend's attacks will reveal the true nature of Trump's bullish approach to his presidency. Should Trump totally re-orient his approach to the world's most complicated geopolitical mess over the span of a few days, it'll prove his mettle as a commander defined by revenge rather than strategy.