Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Column: President Trump did the right thing in striking the Assad regime for using nerve gas. The hard part comes next.

President Donald Trump was right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for using a weapon of mass destruction, the nerve agent sarin, against its own people. 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. Trump did, and for that he should be commended.

The real test for Trump is what comes next. He has shown a total lack of interest 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.

That smart diplomacy starts with Russia. The administration reportedly previewed the strike with Moscow. Cynics might conclude the fix is in: The United States quietly warns the Russians, they give Assad a heads-up and tell him not to react, and everyone calls it a day. More likely, the administration wanted to make sure Moscow knew exactly what we were doing so that Moscow would not overreact or leave its forces in harm's way.

The administration should make clear to Moscow that it will hold it accountable for Assad's actions going forward, rally others to do the same and launch more strikes if necessary. The United States should also condition counterterrorism cooperation with Russia — something Moscow wants — on Russia's efforts to rein in the Assad regime and push it toward genuine peace negotiations with rebels. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Moscow this week will be pivotal in advancing this message and managing any risk of escalation with Russia.

The administration should play on the likelihood that Russian President Vladimir Putin is livid with Assad. Putin has helped the dictator gain the upper hand in Syria's civil war. But Assad's renewed use of sarin gas — which the United States and Russia stopped him from employing in 2013 by diplomatically enforcing President Barack Obama's much-maligned red line against chemical weapons — was totally unnecessary and hugely embarrassing to Moscow.

The Russians also know they run an increased risk of blowback for their continued support of Assad and complicity in his inhumane brutality against Syria's Sunni community. Syria's Sunni Arab neighbors and Turkey may now feel compelled to double down on their support for the Syrian opposition, making Moscow's life a lot harder. Sunni Muslims in Russia, central Asia and the Caucasus will be further enraged against Moscow, and some of the thousands of Chechen fighters in Syria could now seek vengeance back home.

The recent horrific attack in the St. Petersburg subway — apparently by an ethnic Uzbek possibly radicalized by the war in Syria — may be a preview of things to come if Moscow does not begin to extricate itself from the Syrian morass. The Trump administration should help Putin find an exit ramp.

Trump must also carefully guard against the possible downsides of his actions, especially with regard to the counter-ISIS campaign.

The administration will have to convince Moscow not to complicate life for American pilots by painting them with their potent air defenses, or engaging in dangerous fly-bys. He will have to warn Assad's other major patron, Iran, not to retaliate by unleashing its militia in Iraq against American troops. He will have to balance further action against the Assad regime with the need to keep our resources focused on defeating the Islamic State.

And the president will have to control for mission creep. If Assad persists in the use of chemical or biological weapons, it will take extraordinary discipline to avoid falling into an escalation trap that leads from justified punitive strikes to a broader, and riskier, U.S. intervention. After all, American involvement in Libya, which I advocated, began as an effort to protect civilians from violence by the government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. But it ended in regime change. Owning Syria would be exponentially more challenging than our already fraught responsibility for post-Gadhafi Libya.

Here at home, Trump must speak directly to the American people about the country's mission and its objectives, thoroughly brief Congress and seek its support, and make clear the legal basis for U.S. actions. And while he's at it, he should reopen the door he has tried to slam shut on Syrian refugees. The president's human reaction to the suffering of those gassed by the Assad regime should extend to all the victims of Syria's civil war, including those fleeing its violence.

Antony J. Blinken was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. © 2017 New York Times

Comments
Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Updated: 4 hours ago

Another voice: Privacy in the internet age

How much information about you is on your cellphone? Likely the most intimate details of your life: photographs, internet searches, text and email conversations with friends and colleagues. And though you might not know it, your phone is constantly c...
Published: 12/10/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Confronted with documentation of sanctioned brutality and sexual abuse in Floridaís juvenile detention centers, the reaction from Gov. Rick Scottís administration was defensive and obtuse. So itís welcome news that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/11/17

Editorial: U.S. House sides with NRA over stateís rights on concealed weapons permits

With the horror of the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music concert and a small Texas church still fresh, the U.S. House finally has taken action on guns. But the bill it passed last week wonít make Americans safer from gun violence. It is an ...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers ex...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

With a buildout of $3 billion encompassing entire city blocks, itís obvious that Jeff Vinikís plans will change the look and feel of downtown Tampa. But the Tampa Bay Lightning owner unveiled a broader vision last week that reflects how far the impac...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

It is dangerous and illegal to text while driving in Florida, and police should be able to pull over and ticket those lawbreakers without witnessing another violation first. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has lent his powerful voice to legislation th...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Editorial: Outsourcing common sense on St. Petersburg Pier naming rights

St. Petersburg officials predict that selling the naming rights to parts of the new Pier could generate $100,000 in annual revenue. But first the city wants to pay a consultant to tell it how and to whom to sell the rights. Why do city officials need...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Another voice: Trumpís risky move

President Donald Trumpís decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israelís capital has a certain amount of common sense on its side. As a practical matter, West Jerusalem has been the seat of Israeli government since 1949, and no conceivable formula for Pa...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

A tactical retreat and regrouping seems to be paying off for Hillsborough Countyís Museum of Science and Industry. After paring back its operations, the museum posted a small profit over the past year, enabling the attraction to keep its doors open a...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17