After nearly 60 cruise missiles from the US rained down on an airfield in Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can safely assume he’s dealing with a much different president of the United States in 2017.
But the message President Donald Trump sent to Assad — do not use chemical weapons again — will travel much further than Damascus. And there’s another not-so-subtle point being made with the strike that everyone from North Korea to Iran will be hearing:
The US will use force, and do it quickly, if you act up.
It remains to be seen what will happen inside Syria in the days ahead. Assad’s close ally, Russia, predictably condemned the missile strike and denied Syria even had chemical weapons. Moscow also said it would nix agreements and communications channels with the US that helped to deconflict aircraft, setting up the potential for dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.
Meanwhile, tensions remain high on the Korean peninsula, where North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has launched plenty of his own missiles in defiance of the US. But it will be interesting to see whether tensions ratchet down in the wake of Trump’s strike on Syria, which has given Kim a window into the mind of Trump that he hadn’t previously seen.
“It sends a strong indicator of US willingness to use force against North Korea, which might have a salutary effect on the talks between the two leaders,” retired Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told The Cipher Brief. That view was echoed by former Ambassador James Jeffrey and retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan.
So far, the Hermit Kingdom has only responded by calling the Syrian missile strike “an unforgivable act of aggression” that justifies its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Most of the US’s geopolitical foes have been operating under norms established by the Obama administration, which often preferred the carrot rather than the stick on foreign policy. Beyond the Kim regime, there are very likely some tense discussions taking place in Iran — which should be just as spooked as North Korea when it comes to President Trump.
Tehran’s worries are compounded by the Iran hawks they are dealing with, most notably in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. And like all other foes looking toward the US at this moment, the realization is sinking in that most of the American public figured out long ago on the campaign trail: Trump is completely unpredictable.
As Business Insider’s Alex Lockie wrote last week, Trump had a good shot at playing China against North Korea by convincing them he may be a bit on the crazy side, willing to change policy much faster than others.
The Trump administration initially signaled it would likely accept a post-war Syria with Assad remaining in power. Then it hit him with nearly 60 cruise missiles just days after he allegedly used chemical weapons, and top leaders started talking regime change.
It was a stunning reversal. It was a bit crazy. And with a national security team getting its footing, advising a president not willing to back down when tested by a foe, it just might work.