PALM BEACH, Fla.: The cruise missiles that crashed down before dawn on a Syrian air base sent a clear message to President Bashar Assad: The use of chemical weapons will be met with U.S. force. The outcome is less clear: Assad’s grip on power is as firm as ever and he has lost little of his ability to carry out more chemical attacks.
President Donald Trump said the goal of the military action was deterrence. Officials said strikes targeted the Shayrat air base to prevent it from being used to launch attacks like the one this week that killed more than 80 people and provided sickening images of individuals suffering from exposure to a nerve gas. The base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas were struck.
The U.S. is not at war with Syria – at least not yet. The intervention was extremely limited, giving Assad’s military the ability to end it there by changing its behavior and allowing for Washington to incrementally expand its military action if required.
But the surprise barrage of missiles raises questions about where U.S. Syria policy is headed after Trump’s rapid reversal of positions in recent days. Just last week, his administration stressed that removing Assad from power was no longer a priority and that America’s focus was entirely on defeating a Daesh (ISIS) insurgency in the north of the country. But Thursday night Trump appeared to endorse a new, open-ended commitment to respond to any use by Assad of weapons of mass destruction.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said.
Such declarations carry risks. No U.S. officials declared the threat of more chemical weapons eliminated. If Assad isn’t deterred, more attacks would mean more scenes of people foaming at the mouth in agony and bodies lying in heaps. The United States may have little option but to up the ante militarily.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. was still assessing the result of the 59 Tomahawks it fired, expressing hope that Assad’s government learned a lesson. He said it was ultimately “the regime’s choice” if more U.S. military action would be needed.
That raises the potential for Assad to suck the U.S. deeper into the 6-year-old civil war. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, contributed to the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and shows no end in sight. Assad’s forces are locked in battle with a bitter, if weakening, opposition camp. Under President Barack Obama, the United States spent most of the war trying to stay out of the fray.
Engaging the Syrian government as an enemy means Damascus can respond in kind. That creates added danger for U.S. forces on the ground in northern Syria waging a separate war against Daesh (ISIS), and American aircraft targeting militant groups from Syria’s skies. Up to now, despite public complaints, Syria’s government and its allies – Russia and Iran – have essentially given the United States and its coalition partners a free pass to conduct their counterterrorism mission.
And if Trump is now willing to protect Syrians from chemical attacks, will he feel compelled to shield others from what has been Assad’s more pervasive slaughter? Perversely, the U.S. strikes also risk emboldening Assad to use greater brutality if he senses Washington’s intrusion as a threat to his rule.
“One strike against one air base may be enough to deter him from using sarin gas again, but it will not deter his effort to target civilians, target hospitals,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Mideast expert at the Institute for the Study of War.
The United States is also in a murky situation now with Assad’s two key international backers.
Keen to avoid any accident that would create a confrontation with Moscow, Trump administration officials told their Russian counterparts of the impending attack and warned them to stay away. U.S. officials, meanwhile, said little about Iran, a country that could retaliate against the United States and its allies in a variety of ways, from interfering with Gulf shipping to provoking Israel.
But Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and professor at Rice University, said Trump’s message to the region’s potential foes was clear.
“Assad thought he had a green light to do what he needed to do in Syria to counter the opposition to his regime,” Djerejian said. “By proceeding with this attack, it’s a signal to Assad, to the Russians, it’s a signal to the Iranians, to Hezbollah and all those supporting Assad’s regime that this is not a free playing field. There are limits.”