Opinion Column

After cruise missiles, what will president do?

Wesley Wark

This satellite photo courtesy of the Department of Defense shows a battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, following US Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes on April 7, 2017 from the USS Ross (DDG 71) and USS Porter (DDG 78), Arleigh Burke-classguided-missile destroyers. The United States fired Tomahawk missiles into Syria in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people. (AFP PHOTO / DoD / Handout)

This satellite photo courtesy of the Department of Defense shows a battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, following US Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes on April 7, 2017 from the USS Ross (DDG 71) and USS Porter (DDG 78), Arleigh Burke-classguided-missile destroyers. The United States fired Tomahawk missiles into Syria in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people. (AFP PHOTO / DoD / Handout)

The United States has moved swiftly and dramatically to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in a recent attack on a rebel-held town in northern Syria.

President Donald Trump has now demonstrated a willingness to use military force against the Assad regime in ways that his predecessor, Barack Obama, was never prepared to do. Trump's decision was part gut emotional response, part calculated military measure.

In a short speech Trump delivered Thursday evening, the visceral impact on him of the death toll from the chemical-weapons assault was clear. Trump's military calculation appears to have been that the Assad regime (and the wider world, especially North Korea) needed a clear reminder that the U.S. does have red lines and will use force to deter transgressors.

Trump's use of limited military force in Syria tells us four things about his volatile and still young administration. One is that Trump, perhaps to the surprise of many, does have a moral compass, even if a selective one. Another is that he is capable of the controlled use of the immense arsenal of U.S. military power, and willing to listen to his military advisers. The third is the demonstration that the U.S. has eyes on the Syrian target and intelligence capabilities that should help the president, as long as he is prepared to use them.

Finally, the Trump administration clearly took pains to engage both with domestic political leaders in Congress and key allies in the global community. This was an American strike, but not an "America first" one.

But it is also important to realize that this first U.S. military strike leaves wide open the question: What next? The Trump administration will have to decide whether it is enough to send a military signal to Assad to never again use chemical weapons, or whether it will have to go further to ensure that the regime is stripped of all its chemical weapons capabilities.

Beyond the chemical weapons question, there is the larger issue of coming up with a strategy to deal with the Syrian quagmire. Obama never found an effective one. In the aftermath of the cruise missile strikes, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated the strike did not signal any major change in U.S. strategy toward Syria, which in the early days of the Trump government focused solely on the Islamic State and appeared prepared to accept the survival of the Assad regime. It's hard to say how such calculations will continue to hold.

The Syrian opposition will take some heart from the U.S. strikes and hope for more U.S. action. The Turkish government may step up its call for safe havens and no-fly zones on Syrian soil. The Israeli government will see the U.S. action as a muscular demonstration of intent.

But what of all the others actors in the many-sided Syrian conflict? Assad will have no option but to draw even closer to his major supporters, Russia and Iran. The U.S. action may make it harder to put space between Putin and his Syrian ally. Russia may well step up its efforts to ensure that the Syrian air force has the air defence capabilities to deter any future U.S. strike. The various terrorist factions at work in Syria will carry on their struggle and may well welcome deeper U.S. engagement.

The Napoleonic war commentator Carl von Clausewitz laid down a perpetually relevant caution about the use of military force, saying that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." The problem ahead for the Trump administration is now to figure out what the politics of the Syrian problem should be.

Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.