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Syria and Russia Are Trump’s Dealbreakers

By  |  April 7, 2017, 05:25am  |  @stevengberman

President Trump campaigned on “knocking the hell out of ISIS.” He campaigned on limiting Syrian refugees, of whom 5 million have fled the war-torn country. He campaigned on “America First.” But being president is different than campaigning.

Trump just learned his first lesson in human cruelty and the weight of his office. His military response to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s use of Sarin nerve gas on his own civilians could make Syria and Russia his dealbreakers.

Trump first described the horrific way babies and children–the innocent–die from Sarin nerve agent. He said that it’s in America’s interest to “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He asked for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge and ended with a twist on the traditional “God bless America”–it’s not in the video–saying “God bless America and the entire world.”

While it’s commendable that Trump went where former President Obama feared to go and finally did something tangible to respond to Assad’s atrocities, there are quite a few dealbreakers implicit in his action.

First, this is going to make it harder for America to take out ISIS. Syria still possesses a robust air defense system, made more sophisticated by the purchase and deployment of Russian S-300 missile systems. Freedom of air navigation will no longer be taken for granted over Syrian skies.

Without the Russians to help coordinate their own air activity with Syrian air defense, American jets will be subject to “be lit up” by air defense radars. Not knowing whether our aircraft are on the way to bomb government troops or ISIS, I suspect we will see some missile engagements. Losing an aircraft to hostile fire, or avoiding Syrian air defense zones gives ISIS a leg up on our “bomb the hell out of them” strategy.

Read this excellent hot take in The Atlantic by former U.S. negotiator Andrew Exum.

Both Russia and the Syrian regime, though, are still well-positioned to play the spoiler. They can affect the flights of U.S. aircraft in eastern Syria by activating their air defenses and have, in recent months, brought in more advanced air-defense weaponry that has even the Israelis nervous. They’ve also “accidentally” struck U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the Islamic State.

Second, it’s all about Russia now. We’ll see exactly how deep Russia’s disinformation and “fake news” operations go. Russia was none to happy about this strike.

Those Twitter accounts we all noted during the campaign tweeting the same pro-Trump messages over and over seem to have turned against him. If there really was/is anything the Russians have in their pockets on Trump or his campaign colluding with Putin’s team, this makes it more likely such shoes will suddenly drop from the closets where they’ve been hidden.

Then again, if there’s really nothing there, standing up to the Russians (as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have done) goes a long way to assuage our fears of Trump being a Russian tool.

Third, leading with his world-loving heart is not what Trump ran on with much of his base. The so-called “alt-right” is seething. “God bless America and the entire world” may as well have been Trump giving them the middle finger.

 

I’m not sad about this in the least, but we will see where Steve Bannon and his nationalist followers go with this. I’m sure there will be lots of speculation about Bannon’s exit, which I think is terribly premature and shallow.

Last, this should not be seen as the opening salvo of a war to take out Assad as the top priority in Syria. I hope it’s not. As I wrote earlier, there are no great options in Syria, because there are no good actors. They’re all bad, even the Russians. War is hell, and Syria is hell on steroids.

We should not be shocked that Trump led with his heart. Where Obama was cerebral, Trump is instinctual. Babies die of nerve gas, and Trump must do something about it. We did something. It’s probably not going to stop further atrocities. Getting rid of Assad has serious repercussions and will require serious effort. We shouldn’t charge blindly into that quagmire.

Other than damage to an airfield in Syria, not much changed externally in the world last night. But internally, I think there may have been a significant change to Trump’s heart and his awareness of the awesome responsibility that comes with the office of President of the United States. That could be the dealbreaker for “America First” as our president awakens to his first real day in office.