Friday, September 21, 2018
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: Putnam hire stinks of patronage, secrecy

Editorial: Putnam hire stinks of patronage, secrecy

In addition to a lesson on political patronage, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam needs a refresher on the particulars of state public records law.In January 2017, Putnam hired the 27-year-old son of a former Publix executive to a high-pay...
Published: 09/20/18
Editorial: Investigate first, then hold Kavanaugh confirmation vote

Editorial: Investigate first, then hold Kavanaugh confirmation vote

There should be a timely investigation of the allegation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh before senators hear from him and his accuser, let alone vote on whether they should confirm his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The proces...
Published: 09/20/18
Editorial: Immigrants help to make America great

Editorial: Immigrants help to make America great

The heated debate on immigration could benefit from some more facts, which the U.S. Census has helpfully provided. And the facts show that rather than building walls, the United States would do far better to keep opening doors to legal immigrants. Th...
Published: 09/19/18
Updated: 09/20/18
Editorial: FDA acts to keep e-cigarettes from kids

Editorial: FDA acts to keep e-cigarettes from kids

The federal Food and Drug Administration is bringing important scrutiny to the increasing use of e-cigarettes, requiring companies that make and sell them to show they are keeping their products away from minors. Vaping is the new front in the nation...
Published: 09/18/18

Tuesday’s letters: Honor Flight restored my faith in America

Dogs are the best | Letter, Sept. 15Honor Flight restored my faith in AmericaJust as I was about to give up on our country due to divisiveness and and the divisions among its people and politicians, my pride was restored. As a member of the recen...
Published: 09/17/18
Updated: 09/19/18
Editorial: Senate should delay vote on Kavanaugh

Editorial: Senate should delay vote on Kavanaugh

The Senate and the nation needs to hear more about the sexual assault allegation against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Setting aside Kavanaugh's judicial record, his political past and the hyper-partisan divide over his nomination, a no...
Published: 09/17/18
Editorial: Tampa council has another chance to show it takes Stovall House changes seriously

Editorial: Tampa council has another chance to show it takes Stovall House changes seriously

The Tampa City Council has yet to hear a compelling reason to allow a private social club in a residential neighborhood off Bayshore Boulevard, and a final meeting on the matter scheduled for Thursday offers the council a chance to show the diligence...
Published: 09/14/18
Editorial: Focus on Hurricane Florence, not defending poor response in Puerto Rico

Editorial: Focus on Hurricane Florence, not defending poor response in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Florence began lashing down on the Carolinas Thursday and was expected to make landfall early Friday, washing over dunes, downing trees and power lines and putting some 10 million people in the path of a potentially catastrophic storm. Flor...
Published: 09/13/18
Editorial: Scott sends positive signal on Supreme Court appointments

Editorial: Scott sends positive signal on Supreme Court appointments

Gov. Rick Scott has headed down a dangerous path by announcing he has started the process to fill three upcoming vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court as he heads out the door. But to his credit, the governor indicated his "expectation’’ is that he ...
Published: 09/12/18
Updated: 09/14/18
Editorial: Stalled U.S.-Cuba relations hurting Florida business

Editorial: Stalled U.S.-Cuba relations hurting Florida business

After an encouraging start, the breakdown in America’s reset with Cuba is a loss for both sides and for the state of democracy across the region. Havana and Washington are both to blame, but the Trump administration’s hard line with Cuba is out of sy...
Published: 09/12/18