Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN and a columnist for USA Today. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad appears to have once again turned chemical weapons on his own people.
How the US responds is going to be the first big challenge for John Bolton on his first official morning as President Trump’s new national security adviser.
It is as much a remembrance of things past – as France and the United States seem on a path toward joint military punishment of the Syrian regime – as it is a challenge to Donald Trump of the consequences both of action and inaction.
And Bolton, like his boss, has never shied from a good fight, or at least a plausible threat.
The statements late Sunday from both Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to leave little doubt.
“Both leaders strongly condemned the horrific chemical weapons attacks in Syria and agreed that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses,” the White House said. “They agreed to exchange information on the nature of the attacks and coordinate a strong, joint response.”
At the same time, the Elysées presidential palace in Paris was issuing its own statement of an intention to “rest closely in contact and speak again within the next 48 hours.”
The French statement added more details – that both countries had “exchanged analyses confirming the use of chemical weapons,” removing all doubt over the use of these kinds of weapons. This action crossed “ligne rouge” or red line, as the French put it quite openly.
French officials hope such joint statements and plans for action could be a way of keeping Trump engaged in Syria, from which he has suggested as recently as last week he’d like to pull back most American forces.
France believes strongly that while ISIS may have been contained, even vanquished, in Syria, there is much work to be done in support of anti-Assad forces there and, perhaps even more importantly, containing Russian and Iranian expansion in the region. Macron has come down strongly in support of Kurdish forces that continue under siege in northern Syria.
Still, both Macron and Trump have clear recollections of how quickly matters deteriorated in the past when it came to joint action in Syria.
In August 2013, Barack Obama and François Hollande expressed their horror over Assad’s use of sarin gas on his own people and vowed a rapid and devastating response.
That adventure ended catastrophically for all parties when, at the last minute, Obama pulled back from the abyss, with French bombers poised on their runways.
For Hollande, this was the beginning of his slide to single-digit popularity and an end to his aspirations for a second term.
For Obama, it would turn out to be the greatest politico-military embarrassment of his presidency. And for Russia, it provided an open door into Syria and a wedge into a leadership role in the Middle East.
On Sunday, Trump observed in a tweet: “If President Obama has crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”
But circumstances are somewhat different in 2018.
First, Trump has already gone in unilaterally with a wrist-slap on Assad when the Syrian leader ordered the use of chemical weapons a year ago. Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against the airfield from which the attack was believed to have been launched.
But with no follow-through, the attack was quickly shrugged off by Assad, who sent his warplanes into the air from that same airfield barely 24 hours after Trump’s action.
It would appear that this time, the US has two choices: A full follow through on the President’s rhetoric, with French help taking out a large swath of Assad’s offensive capability, multiple airbases, staging grounds for chemical attacks; or pull back and grudgingly accepting another Assad/Putin victory.
With France and Bolton urging him on, however, it would be hard to see Trump embracing the second alternative.
As for the French, this is still very much a leap of faith. First, they must trust Trump to be more faithful to his word than Obama was to his – by itself a pretty good motive for Trump coming through. And, they must trust that John Bolton will be consistent and follow through with the kinds of threats that Donald Trump is inclined to issue in a random tweetstorm.
Trump had better be prepared to make good on this, or see an end to his deep friendship with the one leader in Europe he has been able to count on.
Two weeks from now, Macron is scheduled to pay the first state visit to the White House of any head of state during the Trump presidency and Syria will now need to be high on their agenda.
Coincidentally, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, fresh from a largely triumphant three-week parade across the United States, landed in Paris late Sunday for the next leg of his own world tour.
Greeted at France’s Le Bourget field by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, received in the Louvre museum for a lavish private dinner with Macron, the Crown Prince will have had ample time to suggest how strongly he believes in containing Assad and especially Syria’s close ally, Iran – mortal enemy of Saudi Arabia.
In short, there is every reason for Trump to steel himself and go into battle with a staunch friend and ally, Macron’s France, at his side and another, Saudi Arabia, cheering him on, if from the sidelines.
But Trump must make a choice – and quickly. Lessons in such matters have a very short shelf-life indeed.