Trump might not care whether a dictator in Syria conducts mass murder, via chemical weapons or otherwise; the new regime in Washington might not detect any U.S. interest at stake in policing even the most minimal norms against war crimes. But Trump will quickly find that he needs allies, and not just to fight terrorist groups targeting America.
When Washington does seek international cooperation to check chaos in some roiling war zone or roll back expansionism by a rising power, or even simply and crassly to protect American commercial interests or markets somewhere around the globe, Trump will realize he needs the very same quilt of institutions and norms that has been so thoroughly eviscerated over Syria. America has already been reminded of the importance of allies as it confronts a bellicose North Korea. It is probably coming to similar realizations about managing the South China Sea, maintaining the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal, and safeguarding Old Europe.
Institutions and governments that stand by idly or ineffectually as Assad makes a mockery of the chemical weapons taboo and the agreement that supposedly emptied Syria of chemical weapons years ago will find themselves ill-equipped to cope with later crises about which they care far more than they do about Syria.
This leads back to the question of motive.
The U.S. government’s confidence aside, it will take time for conclusive proof about this latest attack to emerge in the public sphere, as it did in 2013, of the regime’s culpability. From a Syrian tactical viewpoint, this attack was utterly gratuitous. Syria’s government, which at this stage is handily winning the civil war, does far more killing with conventional weapons. So in terms of the human toll, chemical attacks are but one piece in a horrifying network of crimes.
But the attacks do more than just murder Syrians: they expose the international order as a sham, and weaken the same institutions that are supposed to restrain Assad and his chief backers, Russia and Iran. A weakened and humiliated United Nations—or European Union or United States for that matter—behoove the maneuvers of Moscow, Tehran, and Syria, which more often than not find themselves targets of the wrath of an international order dominated by Washington and Brussels.
It could be that the attack in Idlib was the work of a rogue or a madman. But it’s all the more likely, given the carefully studied impact of the 2013 chemical fiasco in Syria, that Assad expects even greater dividends this time than he reaped during the last round. If he can drop chemical weapons on the same day that a conference in Brussels is discussing plans to reconstruct Syria, without any substantive response, then he’ll inch even closer to his current goal of winning a Western-funded rebuilding plan on his own terms. He hopes to cudgel the West into funneling reconstruction money through his regime, which committed most of the destruction in the first place. It’s absurd that until last year, the same Western governments that were calling for Assad’s ouster and funding for armed militants to overthrow him would now pay to restore his abusive authority— it’s also very possible.
A chemical attack seems folly at this pivotal moment, with Europe and the United States pondering whether to reluctantly restore relations with Assad. But sadly, it’s the kind of gamble that has worked for Assad in the past.
As usual, the first victims are Syrian civilians, caught in Assad’s total war. But an equally important casualty might be what remains of the international institutions that are supposed to fight war crimes and atrocities. Today Syrians suffer. Tomorrow, the world.