Circa (Washington) -- The Trump administration has made it clear that its recent strike against the Syrian government might not be its last. But this promise has created uncertainty among supporters and critics of the strike regarding U.S. policy in the region.
"Our hope is that Syria and its patrons got the message. But Syria should know, and its supporters Russia and Iran should know, that the United States and our allies and the civilized world are prepared to continue this effort," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Saturday. He added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will pay a price for future chemical attacks.
"And that price will involve the use of military force," said Pence.
The Trump administration has had dual narratives when it comes to Syria. On the one hand, President Donald Trump has made it clear he would like to see a U.S. exit from Syria sooner rather than later. On the other, the U.S.-led strike on Friday, Trump's second retaliatory strike against the Assad regime, shows he is not afraid to apply continued force. Pentagon officials have consistently noted that the U.S. is not interested in picking a fight with Assad. They insist their primary mission is against the beleaguered Islamic State forces still active in the region. But a clear policy is noticably absent for some.
"The United States needs to have a coherent policy when it comes to Syria, certainly beyond deterring Assad from using chemical weapons," Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who supported the strike, told CNN in an interview.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright echoed similar sentiments last week, just days before the strike occurred.
"As far as I can tell, there is no strategy," Albright said during an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. "It is one thing to take action on this particular, really egregious issue on the chemical attack, but I think we need a strategy of some kind."
The administration has done its best to keep the Assad and ISIS narratives separate, but that might become increasingly difficult in the future. The 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria are tasked with fighting ISIS, however, they have engaged in several scrapes with regime forces and their allies in Syria over the past year. U.S. forces engaged with so-called Russian mercenaries in Syria in early February, killing as many as 300 of them. U.S. aircraft were deployed in May of of last year to destroy a Syrian army convoy which violated a deconfliction zone surrounding a U.S. base near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Pentagon considered both cases acts of self-defense.
U.S. forces are also at risk of getting caught between the escalating conflict between Israel and Iranian forces operating in southern Syria.
A senior Israeli defense official recently confirmed to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the Israel Defense Forces struck an Iranian drone command center located at Syria's T4 air base. The attack came in response to an Iranian drone that was flown into Israeli air space, which the IDF claims was armed. Iranian Col. Mehdi Dehghan, the leader of the drone unit, was reportedly killed in the attack.
The plethora of conflicts erupting in Syria may make a succesful exit difficult. Trump has insisted that ISIS is close to total defeat, but keeping the group defeated may require a sustained presence.
"It seems that the way the U.S. military and its leadership defines ISIS being defeated 100 percent is that all the areas that have been conquered from ISIS by the U.S. led coalition have been stabilized and ISIS is prevented from reemerging," Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Circa in an interview. "That requires a longer process than just removing the sort of ISIS black on the map."
Trump was critical of former President Barack Obama's decision to leave Iraq early, which some say gave ISIS the opportunity to emerge. Heras noted that ISIS has the possibility of making a comeback even after it loses its territory, meaning Trump could be at risk of making the same mistake as his predecessor should he make a hasty exit.