After days threatening to take action, President Donald Trump announced Friday evening that he’d ordered “precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities,” of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Trump said U.S. forces acted together with France and the U.K., retaliating for a suspected poison gas attack that killed dozens near Damascus last week.
The Pentagon listed the targets as a scientific research facility in Damascus that officials said was involved in producing chemical and biological weapons, as well as a chemical weapons facility near Homs, and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a military command post near Homs involved in the most recent attack.
Trump said the strike was also a message to the “two governments most responsible” for equipping the Assad regime – Russia and Iran.
“No nation can succeed by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants,” and dictators, he said. “Russia must decide if it wil continue down this dark path” or join with “civilized nations.”
Cipher Brief experts weighed in on what they see as next steps, and possible blow back. Their comments are adapted below for print.
Syrian opposition leaders via Amman from their sources in the ground say the attacks were very surgical and hit, by their accounts, facilities that had been mostly evacuated. Syrian security forces have cordoned much of the targeted areas but there does not appear to be any reported leaks of chemical products.
Internally. the Assad regime got ahead of the media fallout and is portrayed its air defense systems as having stopped the bulk of the attack. Assad and his supporters are treating the attack as “a win,” mostly because there was no impact on regime leadership and control. And except for the noise and limited visuals in the sky of the attack, few Syrians can see the impact of the attacks, as the sites were in restricted areas and inaccessible to the public.
From the Syrian opposition’s standpoint, as conventional forces do not appear to have been targeted, they not see the attacks as a game changer on the ground. Nor do they see the attacks in any way as being in support of the opposition efforts against Assad overall. From one of their senior officers, Assad is winning on the ground and does not need the chemical weapons to continue reestablishing control over most of the country.
Unfortunately, the limited nature of the attack is seen as clearly highlighting that absent the use of internationally banned weapons, Assad can continue to purge his country of the opposition, fill his prisons with opponents, execute whoever he wants as long as it is done with anything but a chemical weapon.
In short, no strategic damage done to Assad, no tactical advantage gained and many in the region see it as a face saving gesture with little impact. An opportunity lost to change the calculus in Syria for both Assad and the opposition.
“There appear to have been a number of goals of the strikes. First, the attacks were conducted by Washington, London, and Paris, underscoring an international approach in this operation. The narrow scope of the targets shows that the Trump administration decided to avoid a broader campaign, which could have focused on targets important to the regime, but beyond actual chemical weapons-related facilities. Use of missiles and standoff ordnance also says that we tried to reduce the likelihood of exposure of our aircraft to Russian air defense systems.
“Second, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ comments that this is meant to be a one-time strike adds to the message that our main policy goal remains to compel the Syrians to cease chemical weapons activity.
“Third, the attacks struck targets in Damascus, demonstrating that we are capable of undertaking operations against Syria’s most heavily-defended areas.
“Finally, by so loudly signaling our intent to strike and choosing such a narrow class of targets, we allowed Russian, Iranian and even Syrian forces to disperse, indicating a desire to limit casualties.
“These attacks will cause many to continue to question the need for a more clearly articulated strategy in Syria. Although such a strategy has been overdue, the absence of a U.S. secretary of state and the recent arrival the new National Security Adviser John Bolton means that it will likely take some time for any new strategy to be developed.
“Regarding events on the ground, these attacks have not substantially weakened the regime and therefore are unlikely to have any impact on negotiations between the warring parties. I do not believe the Syrians will cease to use chemical weapons, but they are likely to pause in their use for the near term.
“The likely Russian propaganda campaign and attempts to criticize the U.S. in the UN, which will follow these strikes, will further degrade our already poor relations with Moscow, but the Russian counter options are limited. Russia, Syria and Iran are isolated in the diplomatic arena. Moscow shows no desire to risk a military confrontation to protect a dictator, and some in Moscow will be stung by the accurate perception that Russia cannot defend its allies from Western strikes.”
“The missile attacks seem to be limited in scope and focused on the chemical and biological weapon capabilities of the Assad regime, and does not look to change the status quo in Syria. The attack also appears aimed at limiting the potential for an escalation of the crisis by signaling to Syria’s patrons, Iran and Russia, that the U.S. is not seeking a wider war.
“This attack reminds me of Operation Desert Fox aimed at Saddam’s Iraq in December 1998. Back then, the Clinton administration decided to launch a missile attack to punish Saddam for his alleged intransigence to comply with UN-mandated disarmament. The attacks lasted a few days and changed very little in the way of the situation on the ground.
“In the short-run, I think the Assad regime will back away from using chemical weapons (CW) to assert control of rebellious areas. Iran and Russia may also see Assad’s use of CW as dangerous and unnecessarily provoking the U.S. into action that could spread quickly into a wider conflict. So long as the U.S. does not seek to alter the status quo in Syria, I do not think that either Moscow or Tehran will look to retaliate against the Western nations.
In the long-run, I do not believe that the Assad regime will give up what it sees as its right to reestablish control over the country. Assad has shown himself as someone who will use whatever means necessary to maintain his hold on power and reassert his authority over the territorial integrity of Syria. I don’t think this attack will convince Assad to give up his chemical weapons or his right to use them.
“One thing to possibly be on the lookout for a little further down the road: Should President Trump precipitate a constitutional crisis by firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and should Washington become engulfed by a presidency under siege, it will be interesting to see what Assad, with the prodding of his allies in Moscow and Tehran, might try. My guess is that this could be a time when Assad might again use CW in order to embarrass Trump and test Washington’s resolve during a time of domestic turmoil.”
What’s your immediate take on how this will affect overall strategy/attempts to reach a peace deal between warring parties?
“I do not see this event as either discouraging or encouraging anything regarding a peace deal. The Trump administration seems to have limited aims in striking at Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and they do not appear to be part of a larger strategy to bring an end to the violence that has engulfed Syria since 2011. There are numerous peace initiatives for Syria but none that looks like it will end the cycle of violence.”
Other long-term fallout, blowback you anticipate?
“Most of the fallout from the missile strikes will be rhetorical. There will be accusations and counter-accusations made between the U.S., Russia, Iran, etc. I think Russia and Iran see the Trump administration as more willing to take action than its predecessor, President Barack Obama. However, I think they also see Washington’s national security community as chaotic and unpredictable, led by a president whose administration is chaotic and unpredictable.
“Washington acted with the support of allies in France and the UK. That and the limited nature of the attack should give them pause and perhaps exert some restraint on the Assad regime. However, tonight’s missile attack will not dampen their resolve to maintain the Assad regime in power at all costs.”
The American strikes on Syrian chemical production, storage and delivery facilities Friday evening were essentially another pinprick and a slap on Assad’s wrist devoid of any long-term strategy. It was a “one shot” strike to punish Assad for a one-time heinous act, which the regime has withstood.In fact, Assad is more defiant this morning than ever!
The key lesson that the Assad regime and the neighboring countries had taken from the strike is that although the United States does not tolerate the killing of innocent people by poison gas, it takes a benign attitude toward the killing of thousands of Syrians by air strikes, barrels bombs, shelling by tanks and long-range guns. Syrians are being killed by their bloody regime regardless of whether the crimes are being done by conventional weapons or poisonous gas.
The Russians and Iranians viewed the strike an symbolic gesture by Trump to assuage his conscience after watching the horrific pictures of Syrian children suffocating from the gas attack and to show the country that he keeps his word. In reality and based on commentary from the region, his and America’s prestige in the region is becoming even lower than it was before the strike.
Dealing with Assad is not rocket science: unless he is deposed, no meaningful negotiations about the future of Syria will take place, and the country will not get any better.
Editor’s Note: This piece was updated to add comment from Cipher Brief experts.