- - Monday, April 23, 2018

Western civilization — in the guise of its three leading powers — struck back at international lawlessness when they hit Syrian chemical sites on April 13. It remains to be seen whether the strike had the desired effect of deterring the Syrian leadership from the further use of such weapons. If it does, President Trump’s claim of “mission accomplished” will be justified. That brings up the key question of “what next?” if chemical weapons use continues.

A line was drawn, and then crossed. President Trump will catch flack for organizing and instigating the attack from many quarters, and already has. Hard-liners — to include Syrian rebel groups — think the strike was ineffectual. The Russians and Iranians claim that it was illegal and that the Syrian leadership was framed, perhaps by rival rebel groups to further harm the Assad regime. Hard to tell; international inspectors aren’t allowed to see the site.

The reality is the strike was what strategists call a measured response. It was designed to send a specific signal on a single issue; that being the Syrian use of chemical weapons, particularly against civilians. The president has made it clear that the prime American interest in Syria is to eliminate the ISIS infestation; that is a goal that he believes has been largely achieved.

Mr. Trump has made it plain that he doesn’t want to get involved in Syrian regime change and nation building, neither of which Americans have proved to be particularly adept in executing. Even the president’s harshest critics have to acknowledge that he has been consistent in that policy approach.

That returns us to the question of what should be done if Mr. Assad fails to heed the signal and continues chemical weapons use? We have been down that road before. From 1965 until 1968 the United States conducted the “Rolling Thunder” bombing against selective targets in North Vietnam in an attempt to dissuade the North Vietnamese from supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam.

That bombing was originally seen as an alternative to sending in American ground forces, and it was meant to target those military facilities supporting North Vietnamese military activities in the south. The signal intended was that the United States would continue to gradually ratchet up attacks until the North gave in. The various phases of Rolling Thunder were limited, incremental, and the whole effort eventually failed.

We now know that the North Vietnamese understood the signal that was being sent and chose to ignore it. The leadership in Hanoi decided that they it could withstand the type of bombing that the United States was conducting and the limitations the Americans placed on themselves fell within its threshold of pain. No key airfields or infrastructure were hit; nor were key leadership and command and control installations. In frustration, President Johnson eventually sent in massive ground troops anyway, but continued the bombing hoping that its cessation would be a bargaining chip in some future negotiation. The whole effort failed.

This doesn’t mean that selective use of air power to achieve a specific effect is useless. Mr. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon became frustrated with the walk-out of the North Vietnamese delegation of the Paris Peace Talks in December 1972. He ordered that the US Air Force use B-52 bombers to bring them back to the table in Operation Linebacker II — otherwise known as the “Christmas Bombing.”

This time North Vietnamese cities, key military installations, and air defense systems were hit. Hanoi claimed that over 1500 civilians had been killed although civilians were not deliberately targeted. By the end of December, the Hanoi delegation was back at the conference table.

Like the recent Syrian attack, Linebacker II had a very specific objective, and when it was achieved the bombing stopped; Henry Kissinger reportedly observed that; “we bombed them into accepting our concessions.” If Rolling Thunder was a signal to get Hanoi’s attention, Linebacker II was an airhorn.

The Western coalition has signaled that it will strike again if the chemical attacks continue. Most people in the civilized world hope that his signal will be heeded. If not Mr. Trump and his coalition partners have a hard decision: Go hard or go home. If there must be further coalition attacks, they should be designed to break things and kill people, and some of those things and people may be Russian and Iranian. That risks a serious escalation of the war that no one presumably wants. The Russians would be well advised to have a serious talk with Mr. Assad; things could get ugly very quickly.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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