War Stories

Will Assad “Get the Message” This Time?

The U.S. once again opts for a limited response to Syria’s chemical weapons use.

ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 13:  U.S. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (R) brief members of the media on Syria at the Pentagon April 13, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. President Donald Trump has ordered a joint force strike on Syria with Britain and France over the recent suspected chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (R) brief members of the media on Syria at the Pentagon April 13, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Friday night’s air and missile attack on Syria was as limited as one might imagine under the circumstances.

At a 10 p.m. news conference, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that more than 100 weapons were fired from U.S., British, and French warships and fighter planes.

But he also said the weapons were aimed at three targets associated strictly with Syria’s “chemical weapons infrastructure”—a lab near Damascus, a storage facility west of Homs, and a chemical equipment facility as well as “an important command post” in the same area.

Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the targets were chosen, and the strikes were conducted, in order to “minimize” the chance of “civilian and foreign casualties.” For that reason, some chemical facilities—how many, they didn’t say—were excluded from the attack.

In other words, as they said, the attack was designed to “degrade” Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons—meaning (though they didn’t say this explicitly) that it would not necessarily destroy that ability. The two men also said they hoped the attack would “deter” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using such weapons in the future.

Mattis emphasized that this was a one-off attack. He said it began at 9:00 pm and ended before he and Dunford came down to the Pentagon press room—meaning that, from start to finish, it lasted less than an hour. The two men said no further attacks were planned, unless Assad launched chemical weapons again.

One year ago, President Trump ordered warships in the Mediterranean to fire 59 cruise missiles at the air base from which Syria had recently launched chemical weapons. The next day, Syrian planes attacked anti-Assad forces—though not with chemical weapons—from the very same base.

Mattis acknowledged at the press conference that Assad “didn’t get the message” from last year’s attack but that Friday night’s attack was more potent, since it involved three allied countries (instead of the United States acting unilaterally), three targets (instead of just one), and more than twice as many weapons.

However, it does not necessarily follow that those differences alone will be enough to alter Assad’s behavior. Meanwhile, the attack—which Mattis said was planned and carried out in tight integration with the British and French militaries—avoided any targets that might have threatened Assad’s regime or its support by Russian and Iranian forces.

Since Trump tweeted earlier this week that he would respond to Assad’s chemical attack by firing “nice and new and smart” missiles on Syria, the inevitability of a strike had been assumed by the entire world. Over the past couple of days, Trump’s top advisers argued over whether the attack should be limited—a one-wave salvo, confined strictly to targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons—or broadened to include many other targets vital to Assad’s regime and perhaps spread out over several hours or days. Mattis and Dunford urged a limited strike, mainly to avoid escalating the conflict or sparking a direct war with Russia. Trump and his new national security adviser, John Bolton, were reported to be in favor of a broader attack.

Mattis and Dunford seem to have won the debate.

In the days leading up to the strike, Kremlin officials warned that Russian air-defense systems would shoot down any U.S. planes or missiles aimed at Syria. Dunford said Friday night that he had no evidence of any such attempt, though he did say some Syrian surface-to-air missiles were fired. Syrian media reported that these SAMs shot down 13 U.S. cruise missiles.
Dunford said he had no information to confirm or deny those reports.

It will take hours to assess the effects of a bombing campaign; certainly nothing reliable can be said until daylight. Mattis said the Pentagon would release more information Saturday morning—including the number and types of planes, missiles, and munitions involved, whether any were shot down, how badly the targets were damaged, and whether other targets or people were hit by mistake.

It’s also not clear at this point whether actual stockpiles of chemical agents were hit—and, if so, how that can be done without releasing the poison into the air.

Limited as it was, political controversies may erupt over the strike. Mattis said the president had the legal authority to launch the attack on his own, citing Article II of the Constitution and international laws banning chemical weapons. However, Article II gives the president authority to act when vital U.S. interests are endangered, and it is debatable whether they were in this instance. International law is clearly relevant, but some will argue that violations should be addressed by international bodies, such as the United Nations. The British parliament had planned to debate whether or not to join an attack on Syria, but the decision was made without their involvement.

The ultimate effect of the attack may not be known for days, weeks, or even longer, as the world waits to see what Russia and Iran will do and whether Assad will again resume his attacks—chemical and otherwise—on Syrian civilians.