Ending a week of threats and speculation, President Trump announced Friday night that the United States, along with Britain and France, is launching missile strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in response to last weekend’s chemical attack in the town of Douma. Explosions have already been reported around Damascus.
In a televised statement from the White House, Trump said the strikes would hit “targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities” of Assad’s regime, and that these were intended to “establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons.” He also said that the U.S. is “prepared to sustain this response” in order to deter future use of chemical weapons, though it’s not clear whether this entails a long-term engagement or the kind of limited symbolic attack launched a little over a year ago in response to a similar use of chemical weapons by Assad.
Trump has reportedly been at odds with James Mattis on this question, with the president favoring a more aggressive response compared with last year and the defense secretary pushing more limited options in order to avoid direct confrontation with Assad’s ally Russia, which has a significant military presence on the ground in Syria. Trump, who prior to last weekend was advocating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, said tonight that “America does not seek an indefinite presence” in the country.
As with last year’s strikes, the legal rationale for this action is dubious. Congress has not sanctioned this action, nor has the U.N. Security Council or NATO. This becomes even more of a concern if the response is “sustained” for a long period of time. Unlike last year’s strikes, which came with little warning in order to maximize the element of surprise, the regime has had plenty of time to prepare this time, as Trump has been tweeting threats of action at “animal Assad” and Russia all week. The Syrian military has reportedly been moving planes and other assets to Russian bases, which are less likely to be targeted by the U.S. (Last year, the U.S. gave Russia advance warning to move its assets out of the way.)
In his statement, Trump specifically addressed the governments of Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran, asking, “What kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?” He continued: “Hopefully some day we’ll get along with Russia and maybe even Iran, but maybe not.” If nothing else, this is further indication that, whatever role Russia may have played in Trump’s election, it is still more of an adversary than ally.
We will see in the days to come whether these strikes will look more like the limited action Mattis was pushing or the expansive vision that Trump had warmed to, and which new National Security Adviser John Bolton also reportedly supported. The task ahead will be unbelievably tricky: Too aggressive a response risks striking Russian assets and drawing the U.S. and its allies into direct conflict with Putin. Too modest a response will likely have the same result as last year—a brief pause followed by a resumption of Assad’s criminal activities. Either way, Trump’s earlier stated desire to “get out” of Syria in the near future has clearly been put on hold.
Update, 10:39 p.m. : Shortly after Trump’s initial announcement, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, addressed reporters at the Pentagon and brought clarity to Trump’s talk of a potentially sustained attack.
According to Mattis, three targets “specifically associated with the Syrian regimes chemical weapons program” were hit, and for now that appears to be it.
Mattis called the operation a “one time shot” and said that whether there are more strikes going forward “will depend on Mr. Assad, should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future.”
On Thursday, Mattis said that the U.S. was still assessing information on whether Assad was behind the chemical attacks, but Friday night he said that he had since become “confident the Syrian regime” had conducted it.
Dunford said that the targets were chosen to minimize the risk of civilian casualties and to “mitigate the risk of the Russians being involved.” He said that “normal deconfliction channels” were used to inform the Russians of the U.S. entry into Syrian airspace but that the Russians were not informed of the specific targets. Dunford said that Syrian surface-to-air missiles had been engaged, but did not share any details on casualties. He said that “manned aircraft” were involved in the strikes.
Contrasting tonight’s strikes with the one launched last year, Mattis said, “We have struck harder. Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants.” Still, it appears that for tonight at least, the attack was more along the lines of the limited response that Mattis was advocating for over the objections of the president.