Small Wars Journal

Shayrat Airbase Strike: Foundation for a Trump Doctrine?

Shayrat Airbase Strike: Foundation for a Trump Doctrine?

Gary Anderson

President Trump’s decision to strike the Shayrat airbase in Syria after it was linked to the Sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians has generally received bipartisan support in the United States and found approval among our allies. Time will tell if the strike mitigates Syrian behavior, but it certainly clarifies the fact that Trump will act militarily if he believes it is important. He also managed to make Vladimir Putin look ineffectual in not curbing the worst of the Assad regime's excesses. Shayrat may prove to be the foundation for a “Trump Doctrine” regarding nations that choose to violate the rules of warfare and threaten to take local conflicts into the realm of total War    

Carl von Clausewitz, the great military theorist saw total war as the harnessing all resources of the state for war and the use of unlimited violence on the military and civilian resources of an enemy in order to break its national will. Clausewitz came to realize that unlimited total war is almost as hard to achieve as absolute zero, and probably as unwise.

Very few nations in history have pursued even near-total war. The Romans did it against Carthage and Israel and the Mongols did it against just about everybody they fought. Poison gas in World War I was a step toward totality but it was not used on civilian populations. As barbaric as World War II became with the bombing of civilian targets and Nazi genocide, the lessons of World War I caused both sides to refrain from the use of chemical weapons which were eventually banned by the Geneva Convention. The small wars of the Cold War became very much limited affairs with the superpowers restraining their surrogates from the worst excesses of state sponsored terror.

However, the end of the Cold War saw a drift toward more totality in violence against civilians; this is particularly true particularly true in civil wars featuring starvation and torture of civilian populations characterizing wars in places such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, South Sudan, and Iraq in its battle with Kurdish rebels. Although the United States and the international community eventually intervened in the worst of these situations, to date there has been no formal structure set up to define when enough is enough. Mr. Trump appears to have taken the first step toward defining his own doctrine regarding ongoing atrocities against civilians. 

Mr. Trump is a man who strives to do what he says he'll do. He also values ambiguity in dealing with potential adversaries. When he told the world that the Assad regime had crossed the line, he obviously meant it. Now that the President has put his missiles where his mouth is Mr. Assad as well as other strongmen who are contemplating such actions may consider their actions much more carefully in the future.

If the administration wants to create a Trump doctrine based on this precedent, it should be based on the three principles. First, keep the Red Line blurry. Exactly spelling actions so egregious that they merit a US response will allow the barracks lawyers in Damascus to thread the needle. In essence, President Trump should paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on recognizing pornography. “I can’t define a war crime, but I know it when I see it.”

A second pillar of the Trump Doctrine should be based on the precedent of the Shayrat strike is to hit only those facilities and personnel that carried out the attack. This is hard to do when tracking shadowy groups like ISIS that leave no footprints. Conventional forces are a different matter. When an artillery unit targets a hospital, it is fairly easy to pinpoint the artillery battery. We obviously had no trouble finding the source of the gas attack.

The third pillar should be to avoid the siren song of getting directly involved regime anywhere. We Americans are not very good at managing such things. Colin Powell was right; you break it; you've bought it. The Russians are pushing for a Syrian solution that does not cause a power vacuum for extremists to exploit.  The president's actions have signaled that the United States will not allow the present conflict to degenerate into nihilistic total war; those positions are not necessarily irreconcilable.

American and Russian interests may coincide here. If the approach works, it should send a chilling signal to both Tehran and Pyongyang that the President is serious, and that his cherished ideal of talking rather than fighting may just be a realistic alternative.