Bolton's First Test: Helping Trump Take a Longer View on Syria

National security experts warn against bombing-and-running, telegraphing withdrawal

National Security Adviser John Bolton / Getty Images
April 10, 2018

New National Security Adviser John Bolton will be crucial in guiding President Donald Trump toward a long-term solution in Syria, but it will be a tougher job now that Iranian and Russian forces are entrenched in the conflict, national security experts said Monday.

As Washington focuses on Trump's immediate response to the chemical attack in Syria over the weekend, top national experts are urging Trump to take a longer view and stop repeating the Obama administration’s mistakes, including broadcasting a withdrawal timeline.

Trump vowed to respond to Saturday's gas attack in 24 to 48 hours, and both the Pentagon and the National Security Council, with Bolton as its newly installed leader, were busy yesterday drawing up potential responses.

Trump launched a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian air base last April after Assad's forces dropped sarin gas against rebel groups in Idlib province.

Israel has acted more swiftly, sending two fighters jets into southern Lebanon and launching missiles at Syria's T4 airbase in Homs province. The missiles hit a section of the base used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, killing 14 people.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the strike as "a very dangerous development," suggesting Israel did not warn Russia of its strike plans.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Monday issued a rebuke to Russia, telling an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that Russia's hands "are covered in the blood of Syrian children."

"We must not overlook Russia and Iran's roles in enabling the Assad regime's murderous destruction," Haley said. "Russia could stop this senseless slaughter if it wanted, but it stands with the Assad regime and supports without any hesitation."

After Saturday's gas attack, with its horrifying images of suffocating children and families, a broad coalition of western allies called for a response to the atrocities using "all available means."

With such widespread international support for a swift U.S. military response, Bolton's short-term job of helping Trump devise the right U.S. military response is simple, according said James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation's leading national security expert.

"This is kind of an easy first day on the job really," he said. "If the president doesn't do this, it creates a lot of issues. It recalls Obama's red-line mistakes and you would send a message of weakness. … I can't see Bolton's first day on the job tolerating anything that makes the U.S. look weak."

Carafano brushed aside warnings from doves on the left and within the GOP who argue Bolton's hawkish reputation would lead the United States into a full-blown war in Syria.

"People conflate John Bolton, the guy spouting off on Fox News, with John Bolton who is in government," he said. "When John served in government for many years he wasn't freelancing. He was executing the strategy the president gave him in a forceful way."

A new U.S. missile launch wouldn't just be another one-off response or a provocation leading to a more extensive U.S. entanglement but part of a strategy of demonstrating that the United States will enforce its threats and protect its interests, Carafano argued.

"We're not walking away from Syria, although eventually we may wind down our force presence," Carafano said. "But, at this stage, we're not going to let you gas people and walk over our interests here."

Carafano and others say Trump's cruise missile attack last April had the effect of almost totally halting chemical attacks in Syria for nearly six months.

The true test of Trump's Syria policy will take more time to define, develop and execute, according to other national security experts. With Trump broadcasting his intent for the United States to leave Syria, they said Bolton needs to remind Trump of the continued ISIS menace and about the need to control the threat Iran's presence in Syria poses to Israel.

Obama's unwillingness to take a strong stand in Syria left a vacuum that Iran was happy to fill.

The IRGC now commands tens of thousands of militiamen and operates at least 10 shared or dedicated military bases throughout Syria. The BBC reported in November that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria, just 30 miles from Israel's northern border.

"He can't simply say, 'we're taking care of this with a bomb,' and move on," Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The policy under Obama was disastrous. The problem is that the disaster has continued."

The weekend's chemical attack brings into focus the need for a policy that extends beyond shutting down ISIS operations there, Schanzer said.

"The president's instincts are to leave Syria as soon as the ISIS problem is contained, but that will not bring an end to the devastating war that continues in Syria."

Before joining the administration, Bolton himself had urged the Trump administration to ensure its first missile attack against Assad last year set the tone for a longer end game.

"The caliphate in Syria & Iraq is gone, but #ISIS's terrorist activities will continue and Iran is becoming a bigger player in the region," Bolton tweeted in October.

Kenneth Blackwell, a conservative politician who served with Bolton as an ambassador to the United Nations, predicted that he will use the "appropriate array of tools" to, "metaphorically speaking, strangle Assad economically and diplomatically."

"One thing you can do is another surgical strike, but he also understands there are ways to ramp up the economic and other diplomatic pressures on the principle supports of Assad," Blackwell said. "John is no rookie. His challenge is to get into a rhythm, so to speak, with this president, and then give him his best, seasoned advice."

"John has never played footsies with the Iranians or the Russians, so I feel comfortable that he is the right man in the right job at the right time," Blackwell added.

Schanzer pointed to multiple options Obama decided against deploying that Trump could now take up, including the U.S. military leading the creation of safe zones or "no-fly zones" to protect civilian communities, more irregular warfare, and greater economic and diplomatic pressure.

The United States needs a strategic plan for Syria, something Schanzer argues was "completely lacking" during the Obama administration and has made Trump's job far more difficult as a result.

"From the outbreak of the war until the president left, the goal was to ignore the problem and stay out of Iran's way," he said. "With Trump coming in, the focus appeared to be to finish up the battle against ISIS, which is going well, but that does not address the rest of the Syria problem—that Syria remains under control of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, which is very troubling in terms of American interest and regional stability."

The challenge now for Bolton will be convincing Trump to make Syria a priority amid a number of pressing national security and foreign policy issues because our key allies in the region would greatly suffer if he doesn't.

The Iran nuclear deal is up for renewal May 12, the same month Trump is supposedly holding a summit with North Korean President Kim Jung Un. Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in a trade war with China, and Iraq and Lebanon will soon hold elections.

"The question is can Bolton come in and help the president refocus?" Schanzer said. "I think so because he's coming in with a significant amount of good will with the president, but he's also coming in at a challenging time."