On Thursday, April 6th, President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack in response to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people in the town of Khan Shiekhun. The retaliatory strike has drawn condemnation from the usuals suspects--most notably, Vladimir Putin and North Korea. But it has also garnered praise from human rights advocates and Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisles, who are justifiably appalled by the idea that Assad's actions -- if left unpunished --could embolden the Syrian regime to commit further war crimes.

By itself, however, the Tomahawk missile strike is unlikely to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the region. Put simply, the catastrophe is Syria will only be solved by diplomatic means. Indeed, shows of force -- like the one Trump ordered on Thursday -- will yield constructive results only if they are part of a more comprehensive regional settlement.

Why is America entangled in the Syrian conflict?

The United States has vital national security interests in the region. These include defeating ISIS, which is using territory in Iraq and Syria as a basis for planning and carrying out attacks against the West. America also has an interest in stemming the refugee crisis that is destabilizing much of Europe.

ISIS in exploiting the fact that much of Syria and parts of Iraq are ungovernable. Syria, in particular, is undergoing a civil war in which Assad's government, rebel forces, and ISIS fighters are in conflict with one another. Compounding this complex situation, the Russians are backing Assad's troops, the U.S. supports some rebel groups as an alternative to Assad and ISIS, and neither side appears likely to prevail in a proxy war with no end in sight.

In addition, historic adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are both jockeying for regional influence by supporting different factions in the Syrian conflict.

Trump sending a message to Putin?

Vladimir Putin is keen on extending hegemony over a region that he regards as within Russia's sphere of influence. Additionally, he views the Assad government as both an ally and the only force in the country that can govern it.

In particular, Putin views the U.S. as a clumsy but destabilizing force due to the chaos America left behind after it intervened militarily to remove Saddam Hussein (in Iraq) and Muammar Gaddafi (in Libya). However, many observers believe that Putin benefits by prolonging the Syrian conflict in so far as the refugee crisis has a destabilizing impact on Europe.

Prior to the election, candidate Trump expressed misgivings about a deeper American involvement in Syria. However, the president has also promised to deliver a knockout blow against ISIS, a pledge that will be hard to deliver on if Syria spirals further out of control. Therefore, his salvo against Assad's assets may have a dual purpose.

First, as a message to Assad and other dictators that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that no one can expect to cross without consequences. But the second signal may be intended for Putin -- namely, don't expect American passivity if you back a regime that commits atrocities.

Why diplomacy in more important than force

However, short of a major ground war, which would only play into the hands of ISIS, the United States cannot impose its will through Tomahawk missile strikes and an air war. In addition, the U.S. lacks a credible partner on the ground.

What it can do is use a variety of sticks and carrots to get all the regional stakeholders -- The United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to the bargaining table where the broad outlines of a political settlement could be hammered out.

In all probability, this would probably entail a shotgun marriage of sorts, between elements of the Assad government and rebel forces.

Bridging the gap between Russian and American interests, as well as Iranian and Saudi objectives, would entail diplomatic ingenuity of the highest order. However, all the available evidence points in one conclusive direction. Namely, that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Consequently, dramatic missiles strikes may make some people feel better that we've finally done something in response to war crimes. However, unless precision-guided force is coupled with even more skilled diplomacy, then it's likely that a peaceful outcome in Syria will remain elusive.