The military strike on Syria could have a ripple effect on President Trump's standing,
both abroad and at home, but it is unlikely to have an enduring impact on the Syrian civil war.
On Friday, the United States and its allies Britain and France unleashed a long-awaited strike on Syria, with goals that exceeded punishment for Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians in the besieged rebel enclave of Douma. In an address to the nation, Trump also sent a tough message to Russia and Iran, the two governments that have provided the air and ground power that have allowed Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, to regain control of most of Syria in the past year. “What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children?” the President said. “Nations can be judged by the friends they keep.” He called Assad's use of chemical weapons “not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”
The Pentagon identified three Syrian targets—a research-and-development facility in the Damascus area and two facilities near Homs, including a command post and a storage facility for chemical weapons and their precursors. It said the targets were selected to minimize the risk to Syrian civilians. Defense Secretary James Mattis called the operation a “one-time shot” that was aimed at sending a strong message to “Assad and his murderous lieutenants.” But the Pentagon also said that it reserved the right to undertake further operations if Syria deploys chemical weapons again. Mattis called Syria's repeated use of chemical weapons “atrocities” that violate all norms of civilized behavior. “It is time for all civilized nations to end the Syrian civil war by backing the U.N. peace process,” he told reporters.
In his address, the President vowed that the United States and its allies “are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” Ending the use of chemical weapons is “a vital national-security interest of the United States,” he said. Syria has used weaponized toxic poisons at least fifty times during the seven-year war, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, charged on Friday.
Trump specifically blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for failing to keep Russia's promise, in 2013, to eliminate Syria's stockpile. Moscow, Trump said, must decide whether to “continue down this path” of aiding and abetting the Assad regime, or to “join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace. Hopefully, someday, we'll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran—but maybe not.”
In the official assessment of Syria's chemical-weapons program, the White House charged that the Assad regime “threatens to desensitize the world to their use and proliferation, weaken prohibitions against their use, and increase the likelihood that additional states will acquire and use these weapons.” It said Russia had not only shielded the Assad regime from accountability for its chemical weapons but had also used its own nerve agent in an attempted assassination in the United Kingdom last month, “showing an uncommonly brazen disregard for the taboo against chemical weapons.”
In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the joint military operation “is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.” Syria and its supporters had given the West no “practicable alternative,” other than the use of force, to prevent the further use of chemical weapons by Syria, she said. She added that the operation “will also send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.”
Social-media users in Syria posted photos and videos of flashes that appeared to be detonations. In Damascus, Syrian state television broke into late-night programming to report that its defense forces had just begun a counteroffensive against “America, French and British aggression” and had shot down thirteen U.S. Tomahawk missiles. The Pentagon said it would not have an assessment until Saturday, but acknowledged that Syria fired surface-to-air missiles in response to the strikes. Mattis warned that he expected a “disinformation campaign” by Syria and its allies.
The strike immediately heightened tensions beyond the Middle East, most notably between Washington and Moscow. Even before the onslaught, a growing new Cold War threatened to become a hot one when Russia warned that it would shoot down any missiles fired at Syria—and counterattack the sites from which they were fired. “The missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” Alexander Zasypkin, the Kremlin's ambassador to Lebanon, had boasted, earlier this week. But Russia appears not to have engaged in an immediate counterstrike.
The joint U.S.-British-French operation sent Russia the third message in recent weeks about its growing political and military intervention across the world. Putin has long been Syria's most important ally. He has propped up Assad with arms and airpower—and has protected him with Russia's veto power at the United Nations.
Moscow has repeatedly dismissed the reports of a Syrian government chemical-weapons attack in Douma, a besieged suburb of Damascus held by rebels, as a “hoax.” More than forty were reportedly killed, and hundreds were injured. Russia claimed that its military representatives visiting Douma found no traces of toxic agents. On Friday, the Pentagon countered that it had evidence of Assad's military deploying chlorine and possibly a sarin nerve agent in Douma last Saturday. “Assad uses chemical weapons in a manner to maximize suffering, such as against families huddled in underground shelters, as was seen in Douma—a population that was already negotiating for surrender and evacuation,” the White House assessment stated.
The operation also displayed Western unity at a time when several cracks have emerged in the transatlantic alliance. It followed a week of intense negotiations among Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the British Prime Minister. It is the second time in the past month that Western nations have taken decisive action together. The other was the joint expulsion of Russian intelligence officers to retaliate for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy, in which chemical weapons were used.
For Trump, the military strike on Syria could have a rippling impact on his standing, both abroad and at home. It showed resolve in advance of his summit with Kim Jong Un on North Korea's arsenal, which includes at least twenty nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of hitting anywhere in the United States. The summit—pitting a real-estate developer with little foreign-policy experience against a dictator whose family has held power for seven decades—is tentatively scheduled for May or early June. The Syria strike displayed the President's willingness to resort to force when diplomacy fails.
It could also boost the President's approval rating. Trump's popularity jumped to forty-three percent—and his disapproval rating dropped—after his first air strike on Syria, in April of 2017. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans approved of the operation, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were fired on a largely abandoned airfield used by Syrian warplanes that had dropped sarin gas on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens. (Sarin, one of the world's deadliest chemical weapons, was first developed by the Nazis.) The 2017 air strike won wide support among Republicans in Congress who had balked at authorizing the use of force after President Obama drew a “red line” on Syria's use of chemical weapons in 2013.
At least temporarily, the strike also diverts domestic attention from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which has gotten increasingly close to the President's inner circle. On Monday, the F.B.I. seized documents from Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, reportedly including financial records related to payments to silence two women who claimed to have had adulterous affairs with the President.
Yet the impact of the U.S.-led strike will be limited in the long term, and the attack contradicts Trump's long-stated aversion to getting entangled in foreign wars. It is unlikely to have enduring impact on the outcome of the Syrian civil war, which is now in its eighth year. The Assad regime has consolidated control over most of the country and all its major cities. Last week, Trump ordered his generals to withdraw the two thousand U.S. forces currently in Syria within the next four to six months. Pulling out American troops—who have been advising the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces in the campaign to defeat isis —will limit U.S. influence on the ground and on Syria's political future.
Robin Wright, An award winning journalist is a former correspondent for the Washington Post, CBS News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sunday Times of London, she has reported from more than a hundred and forty countries. Has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “ Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World .” Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
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