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Opinion | Matt Gallagher

How does our war in Syria end?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians this week. Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

“Something should happen.”

When President Trump uttered that already infamous phrase aboard Air Force One late last week regarding the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, he stumbled into the strangest of territories for him — honesty.

What that “something” means, exactly, mattered far less than conveying an idea of action. Action as both means and end, action as both tactics and strategy, action both vague and resolute that shows Bashar Assad and the world America responds with force. If that force involves bringing down hell’s rain from the skies, all the better.

“Something should happen.” While it remains to be seen if that becomes official Trump doctrine, it neatly captures too much of American foreign policy toward the Middle East for three decades now. Republican and Democrat presidents alike have fallen for its siren song; what good is the military might of empire, after all, if it isn’t used? And while justifications of the moral and practical varieties have been found over the years — from the Lebanese civil war to WMDs to the Arab Spring — they seem to never come equipped with a coherent vision of what happens after American military intervention.

What human soul didn’t weep for the Syrian civilians gassed in their homes and neighborhoods? Though Syrians have been dying in civil war there since 2011, and as writer Brian Castner put it on Twitter, “We’ve been bombing, raiding, advising local militias, and shooting artillery in Syria for two-and-a-half years.”


The slaughter of innocent Syrians is not new. Neither is American involvement there. Nor is the Assad regime’s use of banned chemical weapons. As White House press secretary Sean Spicer has chirped about all week, the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack left more than 1,400 people dead with little to no consequences for Assad and his forces.


Meanwhile, one clear approach for helping Syrians — the refugee resettlement program — seems in flux under our new president. His first attempt at a travel ban wanted to bar Syrian refugees from American shores indefinitely, while the second attempt would’ve suspended the program for three months and greatly reduced the number of refugees allowed in. Trump said that images of the dead in Khan Sheikhoun “had a big impact” on his decision to launch retaliatory missiles. One can only wonder why images of dead refugee children washing up on Mediterranean beaches have not similarly affected policy.

To be fair, it’s not like we were living up to our beacon-of-hope ideals before. While America was a huge source of funding for displacement camps during President Obama’s tenure, only 18,000 Syrian refugees resettled here during that timeframe, a paltry and pathetic total for a nation that once called for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. The civilian death toll in Syria has surpassed 450,000, while millions of displaced Syrians remain stranded across the Middle East and Europe.

This is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We have shirked from the moment. Trump’s policies have worsened this betrayal of national will, but he did not create it. This is a republic. We are all culpable.

Assad should face justice for his crimes against humanity. Military intervention in Syria is one way to bring that about. I fear many in the Trump administration have little understanding of what that intervention could entail, or what it could wrought in its aftermath. ISIS formed from the ashes of a defeated Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq. What comes after ISIS? Who comes after Assad? Even if the cruise missile strike launched at the Syrian airfield Thursday night is intended to be a one-off, doesn’t recent history convey that one-offs like it often prove steppingstones into mission creep?


These questions have confounded sharper, more knowledgeable minds than those molded in SoHo real estate meetings.

Put another way: How does this look when it ends? Military leaders from Colin Powell to David Petraeus have asked this deceptively simple question while carrying out their battles in the Middle East, and no doubt it’s one Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is now considering himself, and posing to the president.

In the past, Mattis has defended the use and funding of “soft power” tools operated by organs of American power like the State Department and USAID, arguing they are a vital part of any comprehensive foreign policy plan. Trump, based on his proposed budget, disagrees. Like the leaders who came before him and oversaw war in the Middle East, Mattis is a career military man who will execute a mission to the best of his capabilities once ordered to. It is not on him and him alone to be cautioning an impulsive commander in chief with no military experience about the many ramifications of armed conflict.

So what other bulwarks exist in our republic today? Congress long ago abdicated its responsibility with declaring war. That the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) passed in September 2001 is being used as justification for Syrian missile strikes in 2017 seems a cruel joke beyond the bounds of irony — old enough now for a driver’s permit, that AUMF targeted the terrorists who committed the 9/11 attacks. Assad is not a jihadi hiding out in a mountain cave, but a political leader of a sovereign state. Once again, our Congress fails at one of its most central purposes.


And what of the citizenry? The American people have numbed to the wars being waged in our collective name. Blowing up things (and people) in faraway lands is all a college-age voter has ever known. The American republic was structured in such a way that the military protected the people, while the people returned the favor. That’s stopped happening through some combination of the ethereal nature of terrorism, the end of conscription for an all-volunteer force, and a swelling military-industrial complex.

Congress isn’t the only one failing its duties in 2017 America. We’re better than this. Or at least we need to be.

Short of a massive, generational humanitarian campaign that utilizes the military strictly for security and support, or conversely, withdrawing from the Middle East entirely, “Something should happen” looks certain to remain America’s true foreign policy approach to the region.

Unfortunately, we tend to consume current affairs in a vacuum. So what led us here — the Iraq War’s spillover into Syria at the turn of the decade, for one — already has been discarded for the ecstasy of today’s action. So, too, will today’s events be, tomorrow. Something unexpected and unplanned for will emerge from the ashes of this intervention, and an American politician will tell us something should happen.


What they say after that will be the important part.

Matt Gallagher is the author of the novel “Youngblood” and the memoir “Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.” He is an Iraq war veteran and a former US Army captain.