Aniseh Bassiri TabriziResearch fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
There is little indication that the U.S. military strike on a Syrian government air base on April 6 constituted part of a broader, long-term strategy adopted by U.S. President Donald Trump with regard to the conflict. The statements emerging from the administration since signal divisions on what will be the priority in Syria moving forward—ousting President Bashar al-Assad or defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
U.S. officials also seem not to have fully predicted the implications that the targeted attack would have on relations with Russia. Not only did the U.S. decision to use military force against Syria dash hopes for better bilateral ties, but it also pushed Moscow closer to Tehran, in contrast with Trump’s goals.
It is thus inaccurate to speak about a newly established Trump doctrine. But developments in Syria indicate a likely trajectory for U.S. foreign policy: the comeback of American unilateralism. Whether this will translate into a move toward an interventionist policy all around remains to be seen—this would inevitably contradict the administration’s preference so far for putting America first and disengaging from foreign conflicts. What is clear, though, is that while Trump’s foreign policy might appear bolder than the multilateralism adopted by his predecessor Barack Obama, it also will be subject to much more unpredictability and unintended consequences.
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
U.S. President Donald Trump has discovered how to gain the support of the foreign policy establishment, both at home and abroad. That’s a little different from discovering foreign policy.
The decisionmaking process around the U.S. air strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base on April 6 was handled very well—the timing, the nature and comparative restraint of the attack, the prior warning to the Russians to avoid casualties, and the public announcement.
But there’s no Syria policy here, just as there wasn’t one for former U.S. president Barack Obama. It’s a morass without a win for the United States.
There are plenty of places Trump could go if he wanted to discover foreign policy. Syria wouldn’t be one of them.
Thomas CarothersSenior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
What U.S. President Donald Trump has discovered is that the position of the United States as the power that many people—both within and outside the country—look to for responses to atrocities has not changed, despite his previous efforts to shuck off such a role and focus on America First.
After the chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4, no one was calling for or expecting China, Russia, Germany, the European Union, the United Nations, or any other country or organization to forcefully respond. Despite former U.S. president Barack Obama’s quietism and Trump’s declared disinterest in doing good in the world, the expectation still focused on America.
Hastily taking up this mantle worked out for Trump this time (although his actions have not yet changed any of the fundamental dynamics or realities on the ground in Syria). But he will discover that having acted thus once, expectations will now be even stronger that he will fulfill this role in the future—and not only for atrocities but also for other wrongs and problems, such as military coups, stolen elections, or fast-breaking humanitarian disasters.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
It would be highly premature to deduce from the U.S. strike on the Shayrat air force base in Syria on April 6 that U.S. President Donald Trump has decided on a foreign policy.
Rather, the strike can be analyzed as a combination of two very different factors. One is an opportunistic move by the president to stand in contrast with his predecessor Barack Obama, who had defined a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime as a redline for the United States in 2012 but decided not to act when that line was crossed in 2013.
A second factor is the chance for the U.S. military to draw a line in the sand and call a spade a spade when the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia blatantly fabricate an unsustainable explanation about stored chemical weapons. By all technical accounts, the Assad regime and Russia have violated the 2013 agreement on the destruction of Syria’s stock of chemical weapons.
The April 6 strike does not amount to a new U.S. policy on Syria, but at least it greatly hampers Russia’s lead in the political talks on a settlement in Syria. The attack also fuels a more coherent European position on the subject, while Turkey has renewed its calls for Assad’s ouster—a stance that differs from Ankara’s recent alignment with Moscow.
Ulrich SpeckNonresident senior research fellow at the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute
U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy remains opaque. His actions often contradict his tweets and campaign speeches. His national security team sends messages that don’t add up to a coherent approach.
The question is whether this is just the result of incompetence or whether the Trump White House deliberately presents itself as unpredictable with the intention of irritating friends and confusing competitors to gain more leverage. Only time will tell which of the two interpretations is correct.
In any case, what Trump has achieved is to put Washington at the center of global affairs again. A world that still largely depends on the United States to underwrite the global order with its immense power has been put into reactive mode by the White House: America First.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
To paraphrase Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Trump may not have discovered foreign policy, but foreign policy has discovered Trump. Like most new U.S. presidents, Donald Trump came to office with no real foreign policy experience or more than index card–length thoughts about the world. He is now learning that there is more than just transactional deal making to foreign policy and that his decisions can be literally deadly.
Given Trump’s lack of a worldview or a settled team to shape his foreign policy, it is anyone’s guess where he will go when the world comes to call. He is full of contradictions, which reflects this lack of a consistent worldview. As one headline put it, the Trump doctrine is that there is no doctrine. While this could prove an asset if it induces caution in adversaries, it also holds the potential for serious miscalculations and escalation.
The world and the United States are now dealing with an unpredictable and mercurial president. Although he seems to be turning to realists in his national security team, he remains the final decisionmaker, and the dangers outweigh the opportunities.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Undoubtedly, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria’s Shayrat air base on April 6 has all the ingredients of a smart diplomatic move. It has brought the United States back into the Syrian diplomatic game with new leverage. It will also force the members of the coalition that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—Iran, Iraq, and Russia—and Assad himself to look at the Trump administration as a more challenging partner than they were expecting.
Yet this one-off shot does not in itself make a comprehensive foreign policy, as the limits of this sudden momentum show. The new U.S. leverage has to translate into a genuine diplomatic strategy for the overall Syrian conflict. That means defining a firm position regarding the future of the Assad regime and taking the upper hand in the current peace talks in Geneva. Beyond Syria, it implies a capacity to coerce Russia into an uneasy relationship to deliver solutions for other conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. It also means bringing around Iran and Saudi Arabia to end their confrontation and convincing China to seriously tackle the North Korean nuclear program.
The U.S. domestic front, which Trump follows closely, could cool the president’s new enthusiasm. For hardcore Trump voters, this rebirth of neocon diplomacy smacks of betrayal as they observe the cheers of the Washington establishment. In the end, this may well be the most difficult fence to jump over.
Xenia WickettHead of the U.S. and the Americas Program and dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy at Chatham House
Those who believe that the U.S. missile strike on April 6 against a Syrian air base is a sign that U.S. President Donald Trump is going to revert to a more moralistic and humanitarian foreign policy—one that moves away from his strict focus on America’s vital and direct national interests—are mistaken. Trump’s attention on America First will remain paramount.
But the strike does signal several things.
First, it reinforces the fact that unpredictability will be a central characteristic of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. He will not telegraph his views. He will not be constrained by earlier positions. And he is quite happy to change his mind (and back again).
Second, he was sending a message not only to the Syrians and the Russians but also to the Chinese, the North Koreans, and any others who are reticent to support America’s interests. They should know that Trump will not hesitate to use force.
More broadly, over two months in, Trump and his team are beginning to discover foreign policy. They are learning about the ripples of foreign policy—that every action has consequences that go far beyond the intended target. That can be useful, but it can also confound. This will be a steep learning curve.