Assad's use of Sarin again in Syria this week was unforgivable. Not only due to the cruelty of the attack, but because repeated use of gas as a weapon makes it more acceptable on future battlefields. Trump was correct in launching 59 cruise missiles on the Syrian airfield that launched the attack for that reason alone. However, this strike is only the first step in a long journey. Trump now faces the task of reasserting American global power. The process will commence with a demonstration of American political intention and reversal of the effects of Obama's endemic foreign policy weakness.
Trump's ultimate goal will be to face down Chinese expansion.The journey to this goal will consist of many small steps, but it requires at least one ‘win’ that will make the world stand up and recognise a new paradigm is unfolding with a resurgent American power. The use of chemical weapons by Assad on Trump's watch offered an excellent starting point. It also allows Trump to push back Russia as Assad's key supporter and enabler. Interestingly, Obama's key policy mistake was in not enforcing the chemical red line. The first time in Syria was an inflection point that encouraged Russia and China to challenge America wherever possible. Correcting this mistake with a strong response to Assad's war crimes is an excellent place to demonstrate a new regime is in power in America. A robust response will enable Trump to negotiate a more constructive, strategic relationship with Putin from a position of respect and strength. This strategy is more likely to be successful with political powers such as Russia.
In addition, action in Syria will also add credibility to Trump's ‘zero tolerance’ of North Korea’s nuclear expansion. Foremost, in Trump's thinking has to be the urgency behind stopping such a madman from gaining nuclear delivery technology that could reach the US mainland. As we discussed in Trump, North Korea and China, the critical path to a peaceful solution is to have China place pressure on its ally to give up its weapons. The only way China would contemplate such a path is if it is made to feel threatened. This could be in the form of a powerful anti-missile defence system ostensibly designed to counter North Korea, but which would significantly degrade the effectiveness of China’s nuclear strategic deterrent. However, an even more powerful lever could be the threat of direct military action against North Korea. American forces would then have to operate inside the exclusion zone that China is attempting to build inside the first and second island chains.
In addition, there would need to be a long-term military build-up on South Korea which is close to the Chinese border. In order for such a pressure point to be effective President Xi needs to believe that Trump is serious. Action in Syria has no doubt been a useful marker on the geopolitical, negotiating table.