It is undoubtedly a good thing that a small international coalition of the willing responded to Syria’s latest chemical outrage with a limited military strike. But it marks only the first step in an effective strategy to stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons—and more importantly, to hold Russia accountable for its promise to oversee a chemical weapons-free Syria.
Syria and Russia have displayed characteristic bluster and dishonesty, warning of “consequences” for a crisis that the Syrians themselves provoked by apparently violating, once again, their 2013 agreement not to use chemical weapons. Any confrontation with destabilizing bullies is dangerous, and there is no predicting whether and how they’ll respond.
Even a limited and justified effort to contain Syria and its allies carries a risk of escalation. The Trump administration, with its capricious chief executive and broken policy-making process, is ill equipped to forge the sort of complex strategy needed to manage Russia, Syria, Iran, and a Middle East in conflict. Nor has it so far displayed much interest in building the international cooperation necessary to implement such a strategy—although it was a pleasant development that the United States was joined this time by France and the U.K. rather than proceeding unilaterally. However, the considerable drawbacks of the Trump administration don’t give the West a pass when it comes to Syrian use of chemical weapons, and Russia’s belligerent expansionism. Both need to be checked and contained, even considering the additional risks Trump creates.