Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, writes: President Donald J. Trump was right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using a weapon of mass destruction, the nerve agent sarin, against its own people. Mr. Trump may not want to be “president of the world” but when a tyrant blatantly violates a basic norm of international conduct — in this case, the ban on using chemical or biological weapons in armed conflict, put in place after World War I — the world looks to America to act. Mr. Trump did, and for that he should be commended.
The real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next. He has shown a total disinterest in working to end Syria’s civil war. Now, the administration has leverage it should test with the Assad regime and Russia to restrain Syria’s air force, stop any use of chemical or biological weapons, implement an effective cease-fire in Syria’s civil war and even move toward a negotiated transition of power — goals that eluded the Obama administration.
At the same time, it must prevent or mitigate the possible unintended consequences of using force, including complicating the military campaign against the Islamic State. All this will require something in which the administration has shown little interest: smart diplomacy. [Continue reading…]
Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, writes: Donald Trump is president; he now bears full responsibility for addressing the tragedy in Syria, and for the consequences of the response he has chosen. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on America’s response to the Assad regime’s previous chemical weapons attacks—for how we interpret the difficult and debatable choice the Obama administration (in which I served) made not to use military force when Assad last used nerve gas against his people will shape our thinking about this and similar crises for a long time to come. The lesson I would draw from that experience is that when dealing with mass killing by unconventional or conventional means, deterrence is more effective than disarmament.
After Assad’s horrific 2013 sarin gas attack on civilians, President Obama settled first on deterrence—threatening a punitive military response—then changed course when Assad agreed to disclose and surrender his chemical weapons. There were many reasons for Obama’s decision to forego military action, from his own concerns about the risks of getting involved in Syria’s war to the shameful refusal of most members of Congress to back him up. In any case, the administration and many outside observers argued then that the U.S. had achieved a better outcome by threatening force and then negotiating a deal than if we had actually used force. Air and cruise missile strikes could not have eliminated Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, but the diplomatic deal, proponents argued, did.
That argument was never persuasive to Syrians being killed by the barrel bombs and rockets that the chemical weapons deal allowed Assad to keep using. But even if one accepts that there is something uniquely awful about poison gas, the Syrian regime’s repeated use of chlorine weapons after 2013, and now its apparent reuse of sarin, shows the difficulty of relying on disarmament alone to stop a dictator from killing by all means at his disposal. No disarmament regime is foolproof, and it was always understood that Assad likely hid some elements of his chemical weapons production capacity from inspectors. A state that calculates that using a weapon or tactic of war is in its interest will generally find a way to do so.
The more effective strategy is to establish that the costs of using such a weapon or tactic will outweigh its benefits, even if a state keeps the capacity to do so. [Continue reading…]