When, on April 7, Syrian aircraft dropped canisters of toxic chlorine — and maybe the chemical weapon sarin — on the city of Douma, in an attack that killed seventy civilians, for once President Donald Trump spoke the truth: he called repeated chemical attacks “crimes of a monster.” On April 13, U.S. forces joined with British and French allies to strike back, launching 105 cruise missiles at three targets in Syria said to be associated with production of chemical weapons — which chlorine, with its many civilian uses, is not; toxic though it is and therefore usable as a weapon.
The question is whether this or any military response is adequate.
Watching the images from Douma of Syrians desperately wiping chlorine from the faces of bawling infants, any reasonable person wants to slay the monster. A simple plan would succeed. U.S. warplanes can suppress the electronic signals that enable Syrian air defenses to track targets. Attack aircraft can then safely destroy the missile launchers that might otherwise shoot down intruders into Syrian airspace. Then fighter aircraft can safely enforce a no-fly zone over Syrian territory. Marines can seize a beachhead anywhere along the coast north of Lebanon. Through the beachhead heavy brigades of the U.S. Army can deploy. Neither the Syrian Army, nor Hezbollah, nor Iranian militias, nor Russian troops can mount any serious resistance to the heavy brigades. To keep Russian troops out of the fight, President Trump can declare that they will not be attacked unless they impede the operation. Nuclear war is not at stake. Vladimir Putin will never defend Syria if the cost is Russia’s certain destruction. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose approval is surely required for chemical attacks, and his commanders can flee nowhere. Eastward patrol Kurds and U.S. Army Rangers, southward Israelis and Jordanians, northward those heavy brigades, upward that no-fly zone; and if they run westward to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Navy can blockade the sea and the heavy brigades can pursue them on land.
As practicable and appealing as this plan is, of course it raises a further question: what then? A monster does not rule Syria because he is a monster. “No sole ruler ever really rules alone,” Mary Beard wrote about a Roman who once ruled a domain including what is now Syria. Assad rules because he belongs to a secretive, syncretist minority called Alawis, who impose his will on other Syrians. Alawis are secretive because their forebears were the rebel underground against the Sunni Ottomans; secrecy kept them alive. They are syncretists because compromises with other faiths gained them allies for their rebellion: Shi’a Muslims and especially Syriac Christians, for whom one glance at the fate of their Coptic co-religionists in Egypt continuously presents Alawis as less fearsome than Syria’s Sunni majority. When the League of Nations issued a mandate in 1923 legitimating the French conquest of Syria from Turkey, the French occupiers found friends among the enemies of their enemy: the erstwhile Alawi rebels staffed the colonial bureaucracy enforcing French rule. As elsewhere, when the Mandate expired with the demise of the League and the postwar debility of the French army and navy, the colonial bureaucrats became the government of a newly independent Syria. To gain endorsement, financing and weapons from the Soviet Union, the Alawi bureaucrats masqueraded as Ba’ath Socialists and promulgated Arab nationalism — even entering a brief union with Egypt, but this was just camouflage. To be fair, individual defectors from the Sunni majority have also joined Assad’s ranks, much as a Republican Party crammed with racists nonetheless occasionally attracts African Americans. But the main fact is the rule of a minority sect.
No tiny minority can frighten a majority into submissiveness without spectacular cruelty. Cruelty makes a monster of a ruler even if he or she is not already one by nature. If the only alternative to coercion in politics is consent, for any regime in Syria to eschew the violence practiced by Assad’s minority, it must present leaders welcome to the Sunni majority. To be sure, there are, or at least were, Sunni democrats in Syria. But even with U.S. training and weapons, they could never muster a rebel army nearly large enough to defeat Assad’s troops. The Sunni Arab resistance to Assad soon cleaved into two main factions — the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, and ISIS, al-Qaeda’s replacement. While a victorious al-Nusra might conceivably refrain from inflicting lashes for shaving and amputating for thievery, it cannot be expected to hesitate at violent suppression of political rivals or at retaliating against Syrian minorities described as Assad’s allies.
Here is the bottom line for Syria: the only eﬀective action to remove the monster replaces him with another monster. The new monster could hardly do worse, and might even be somewhat nicer, which would be good, but peace with justice remains beyond reach. Meanwhile retaliation with cruise missiles is vanity. Unlike those heavy brigades, whose merit is eventually to bring Assad face-to-face with dismounted infantry who take away all his options, missile attacks let him retain an easy choice of making minor repairs while continuing acts of demonstrative cruelty. Even targeting a missile to assassinate him merely creates a vacancy for a new tyrant. This bottom line is what Barack Obama understood, and it is why he took no action. Even Trump understands it, and cruise missile attacks are only another of his deceptive ploys to paint himself as more decisive than his predecessor.
The only real option in Syria is to welcome the refugees and treat their pain.
Richard Anderson is professor of political science at UCLA and author most recently of Discourse, Dictators and Democrats: Russia’s Place in a Global Process (Routledge: 2014). He is also a former CIA military analyst and Congressional staffer specializing in intelligence and national security.