A year after President Barack Obama issued Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, Assad manifestly crossed the line with a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians. Rather than acting decisively on his pledge, Obama first dithered and then demurred to Congress for approval of a strike on Syria.
Of course, the strike never materialized, and Assad’s brutality went unchallenged and unpunished for years.
Fast forward and last month and the nascent Trump administration, which chose to forego the now absurd “red line,” instead spoke through the U.S. military, responding with a missile strike on Syria a mere two days after Assad’s latest chemical attack on civilians.
Whether America should entangle itself in the convoluted Syrian Civil War is a separate discussion. In its purest form, President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria was a strong and swift declaration of American values. The president’s rationale was refreshingly simple and clear-eyed.
The Syria strike was a good start, but President Trump has years of foreign policy decisions to go before he can comprehensively restore U.S. prestige. There exists not enough space here to enumerate the ways Obama weakened the U.S. and made the world a distinctly more dangerous place.
From handing the world’s leading state sponsor of terror—Iran—billions of dollars in sanctions relief (not to mention hundreds of millions in cash for the ransom of American seamen), to Russian jets mockingly overflying U.S. naval ships, to the continued amplification of the North Korean rogue regime’s brazen behavior, there is a clear diminishing of America’s standing in the world.
This is no secret. America’s challengers openly state their goals and do not shy away from calling for a weaker U.S. While the European Union faced its existential crisis with the Brexit, and NATO appeared confused about its own reasons for existence, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin continued to exert Moscow’s influence over weaker neighbors.
April’s appointment of an Armenian Armed Forces General, Yuri Khachaturov, as head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, commonly known as “Putin’s NATO,” illustrated the degree of the Kremlin’s sway over its neighbors, Armenia’s submission just the most glaring example.
The least sovereign of the post-Soviet states—sometimes even in comparison with own internal autonomies—Armenia is filled with Russian military bases and weapons, and its external borders are guarded by the Russian security officers. Khachaturov’s appointment proves that, even in the Moscow-dominated world of its Eurasian satellites, Armenia stands out as an ultra-loyal and dependent Russian vassal.
In another challenge to the West, Russia last November strategically placed its nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles in its exclave of Kaliningrad, right next to America’s NATO Baltic allies, and announced plans to do the same in its annexed territory of Crimea—essentially threatening the entire Black Sea region. In addition to areas Russia controls directly, Moscow placed the Iskander in two of its regional proxies and satellites: Armenia and Syria. Apparently for Russia, the difference between the territories it formally deems its own, and the failed states it effectively controls, is very symbolic.
The arc stretching through these areas is a clear effort by Russia to deny military advantage to NATO forces and to assert geographic dominance. The first major test for President Trump came when Moscow-backed Assad carried out April’s chemical attack, defying the former Obama red line. Trump responded in force.
The outcome in Syria and its ensuing lessons should not be lost on Armenia’s version of Assad, President Serzh Sargsyan, who has acquired a habit of threatening civilians in the region with Russian-provided Iskander missiles. Perhaps Sargsyan should notice that neither of his regional protectors—Iran and Russia—were too keen on protecting their ally, Assad.
Unlike Crimea, Armenia remains nominally independent—not all red lines have been crossed. Armenia still has a chance to build peace with its neighbors, like Azerbaijan, and move towards a more sustainable sovereignty. Should this opportunity be lost, Sargsyan might embark on Assad’s path of missed chances, and his Russian-provided weapons could become a greater threat to Armenia itself than anyone else.
Trump, meanwhile, should continue to show the world that America will not blur its red lines. Flying in the face of concerns about his “bromance” with Putin, the president showed, by striking Syria, that he is willing to stand up to Russia and one of its vassals. We should hope for more of the same.