Washington Examiner, April 16, 2018 - According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the U.S., British and French air strikes which targeted Syria on Saturday are a "one time thing."
That is, unless Syrian President Bashar Assad decides to employ chemical weapons once again.
I believe Assad will do so. At that point, the Trump administration will have a tough decision to make.
After all, while Trump, Britain, and France are slapping themselves on the back for taking this action, the action was distinctly limited in its intent and effect.
Assad retains his chemical weapons stocks, production knowledge and capabilities, and his regime remains stable. The allied strikes were also deliberately limited toward avoiding escalation with Russia or the death of Syrian personnel.
Putin will see these qualifications as markers for unstable Western resolve and thus weaknesses to exploit.
A new attack may occur as part of Assad's offensive on the rebel-holdout province of Idlib or in the contested area just north of Homs.
At that point, Trump will face a choice as to whether to risk escalation or to stand idle and lose credibility. Remember, the Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans are watching closely how Trump acts in Syria so as to assess his broader leadership.
Still, Trump will also face another complication when the time comes.
That's because the British and French governments will be far less comfortable with follow-up strikes. On the BBC on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson repeatedly failed to answer as to whether Britain would carry out similar strikes in the event of a further chemical attack on Syrian soil. It's a statement Putin's intelligence officers in London will have expediently cabled to Moscow.
So what should Trump do when the next challenge comes?
For a start, on Monday, Trump should direct U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to keep up the pressure on Russia by drawing attention to its responsibility here. That diplomatic attention will have outsized diplomatic effect as Russia attempts to change the subject in the run up to its upcoming hosting of the soccer World Cup in June and July.
Second, Trump should double down on his "locked and loaded" threat to carry out new strikes if another chemical attack occurs. That's the best way to match Russia's escalatory rhetoric and thus see Putin deter Assad from carrying out new atrocities.
That speaks to the exigent point.
Ultimately, Putin's Syria priority is that Assad survives in power. If Putin understands that the U.S. is unwilling to buckle in its repudiation of chemical strikes, he'll be far more likely to reign in Assad's chemical antics. In the end, he knows that escalation with the United States could threaten Assad's survival and thus Russia's critical strategic interests.