President Trump’s cruise missile strike against Syria was celebrated by establishment politicians and media, their glee at striking a blow against Bashar al-Assad swamping any rational discussion of what happens next.
But the enthusiasm to take military action against a hated leader is highly reminiscent of the run-up to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya. And the U.S. is even less prepared to cope with the potentially disastrous consequences in Syria.
Throughout his campaign, Trump condemned regime change, and it seemed as if he had learned from previous presidents’ mistakes. Even as late as last month, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
But after the cruise missile attack, the Trump’s administration instantaneously reversed itself. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said “steps are underway” to seek Assad’s removal, and Haley told CNN it is “hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad [in power].”
What that means in real life is unclear. Trump told Fox Business News that the U.S. is not going to war with Syria, leaving observers to conclude that he either intends to have Assad removed in some other way — or to demand Assad’s removal as a part of peace negotiations like the ones taking place in Geneva.
But swiftly removing the Assad regime would have a dramatic and destabilizing effect on a country that is increasingly governed by local mafias and warlords, and where the largest opposition groups are ISIS and Al Qaeda-connected militias.
“Once the policy people look at what the day after would be — they don’t see any options,” said Josh Landis, the director of the Center For Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The two strongest militias in Syria are Al Qaeda and ISIS, which would undoubtedly profit and would move into Damascus, were the Assad regime to be destroyed.”
Landis said that any gains made by rebel groups would inevitably lead to sectarian violence against minorities, and would have dire humanitarian consequences for the 15 million people who currently live in Assad-controlled territory.
Although the Assad regime is responsible for the majority of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the 6-year old civil war, rebel groups — often U.S.-armed — have also been guilty of horrific human rights violations, from abductions and torture, to mass executions and child beheadings.