Readers React: Syria can be stopped — only if we’re willing to go to war

Porcelain plates bearing portraits of Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin are displayed at a shop in Damascus in 2016.
Porcelain plates bearing portraits of Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin are displayed at a shop in Damascus in 2016.
(Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, April 14, 2018. You probably knew this, but tomorrow — April 15 — is not Tax Day; this year, we have until April 17 to file. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

President Trump announced Friday evening that U.S. forces had launched missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for Bashar Assad’s recent chemical-weapons attack, saying that “we are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

Doyle McManus, a former Los Angeles Times Opinion columnist, predicted earlier this week that the president would say this, and he had some advice for how we should react: Don’t believe him, McManus wrote:

It won't change much on the ground. It won't alter the course of Syria's seven-year war, which Bashar Assad is winning with help from Russia and Iran. It won't even protect Syrian civilians from future chemical attacks. It's mostly about us — and mainly about the president's irritation that his "red line" has been ignored — not about them.

At the most basic level, Trump's missile strike will be aimed at punishing Assad for dropping chemical weapons on a neighborhood full of children, and deterring him from doing it again.

But the Syrian president, "Animal Assad" in Trump's tweets, is willing to absorb the punishment. He proved that after the U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airbase last year.

That attack was intended to deter, too, but Assad resumed using chlorine gas after a few months. For the Syrian leader, the chance to eliminate pockets of opposition and demoralize his enemies by suffocating their children is worth the risk.

An effective deterrent would require a much larger action than last year's pinprick strike. Trump would need to promise that future attacks will be met with a continuing, escalating campaign against Syrian military assets.

But that would draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian war, a step Trump has resisted, just as Barack Obama did. In 2011, Obama declared that Assad must go, but he never found a way to enforce that wish at an acceptable cost. It was his greatest foreign policy failure.

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Don’t overthrow Assad. Sure, he’s a brutal despot, and his attacks on his own people using chemical weapons are unacceptable. But the United States should focus its military operations on suppressing the unique threat posed to the world by Islamic State and, separately, punishing Assad and trying to prevent him from further use of weapons of mass destruction, says The Times Editorial Board. L.A. Times

Everyone should be horrified by Trump’s behavior. His meltdown over the FBI raid of his personal attorney’s office, home and hotel room — calling this action a disgrace and an attack on the whole country — represents a stunning escalation of his rhetoric against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, says the editorial board: “Ideally Trump would stop ranting about Mueller and the ‘witch hunt’ and turn his attention to his duties. But even if he continues to complain, he needs to know that acting to abort or obstruct the investigation will have grievous consequences for his presidency.” L.A. Times

In case you haven’t read enough about the Golden State’s anti-Trumpism, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy offers up some lessons for Trump that he learned during a recent visit to Southern California. Namely: Reagan-Nixon Republicans once had their major stronghold in this area, and yet virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1990s made the GOP brand so toxic that not a single Republican serves in an elected statewide office; and it’s good to embrace products and culture from China. New Yorker

The rich really are different from everyone else, and it isn’t pretty. In a conversation with L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner summarizes some of his research on the difference between those with wealth and power, and those without: “We found upper-class people are more likely to lie in a gambling game to win some money. They’re more likely to take more candy from a bowl that has candy that’s meant for kids. They’re more likely to blaze through a pedestrian zone when a pedestrian’s trying to cross the street.” L.A. Times

California’s citrus apocalypse reflects what’s wrong with this state. Columnist Gustavo Arellano recently had his small grove of fruit trees sprayed to prevent an infection carried by a tiny invasive pest ravaging citrus farms throughout California. The thing is, he writes, this harm is self-inflicted, with the bug having been brought to the United States by careless growers and the problem gone unaddressed until it was a full-blown crisis. L.A. Times