Unclear What Trump Learned from Ordering the Syrian Strike

April 11, 2017 | Walter Pincus
 

The lessons Donald Trump takes away from last Thursday’s U.S. Tomahawk missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat Air Base are more important than the ones learned by Bashar al-Assad.

For President Assad, it was simply don’t use sarin poisonous gas against civilian targets or perhaps next time, it won’t be another American pinprick attack that lets you carry on with conventional bombing from that air base.

With President Trump, it remains unclear what he has learned other than by ordering a quick military strike, he can appear decisive and temporarily divert the media and public away from the Russia-influencing-election scandal, and the failure to replace Obamacare and get a continuing budget resolution passed so the government can stay open.

It’s not known what exactly moved Trump to take action in the aftermath of Assad’s April 4 use of sarin weapons in Idlib Province, Syria, where reportedly 74 died and 600 were injured.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last Thursday, and repeated on ABC on Sunday, Assad had used sarin five days earlier in a March 30 attack in northern Hama Province. But there was no stir about it.

Instead, the news that day was that both Tillerson, who was in Turkey, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said U.S. policy no longer would be directed at removing Assad as Syrian president.

Five days later, on April 4, after Trump was briefed on the sarin attack, Spokesman Sean Spicer read to reporters a White House statement that said, "These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past [Obama] administration's weakness and irresolution” in 2013 after not taking action in response to a chemical weapons attack, having earlier drawn a red line on such use.

Trump himself made no statement.

The next day, the White House appeared to change course.

As possible U.S. military strike options were being drawn up, Trump, at a 1:15 p.m. press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, referred to the pictures from the chemical attack being “so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies…crosses many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.”

After being asked if he had the responsibility to respond to the chemical attack, Trump replied, “I now have responsibility…I will tell you that it is now my responsibility.”

Having publicly committed himself to respond, Trump, at a National Security Council meeting that afternoon, asked that two attack options be more fully prepared, including the one finally chosen – the use of U.S. Navy Tomahawk missiles to hit the Syrian air base that was home to the planes that delivered the chemical weapons. 

The military planning was carefully and cautiously done so as to limit Syrian civilian and military deaths or injuries and avoid any Russian casualties. The attack was scheduled to take place at 2:40 am local time. At about 1 am, the U.S. initiated a conversation with the Russians on the deconfliction line, warning that a military activity was going to take place in the area of the Shayrat Air Base.

One other special precaution took place that has a continuing implication.

According to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s briefing of reporters April 6, “Measures [were] put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is storage of sarin gas there [Shayrat Air Base], so that that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.”

McMaster thus indicated that U.S. intelligence had determined sarin weapons were stored on the Shayrat base.

Some may still be there. That being the case, why has nothing been said about insisting the Syrians and Russians allow the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has the authority under the 2013 agreement “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals,” to examine the storage area mentioned by McMaster?

Tillerson is scheduled to arrive in Moscow tonight [April 11] and meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tomorrow. He should immediately raise the need for OPCW to investigate the presence of chemical weapons at the Shayrat Air Base.

There have been doubts voiced that all chemical weapons had been removed from Syria. In July 2016, the OPCW Technical Secretariat reported it “was not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration” of all Syria’s chemical weapons sites.

In announcing the missile attack late Thursday night, Trump called it “a targeted military strike” that was designed “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

As for the future, other than vague references that there could be a follow up, Trump and his top aides have given mixed signals as to whether the attack also began a new approach to American involvement in the Syrian civil war. Tillerson on Thursday told reporters, “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate [the Syrian attack] to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.”

He did say it demonstrates “that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line…on violating commitments they’ve made and crossed the line in the most heinous of ways.”

With that in mind, it seems clear that the highly publicized sending of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula in advance of a series of expected North Korean military demonstrations later this month, is a sign that the White House wants to build on Trump’s new appearance of “toughness.”

Although last Thursday’s pinprick attack will have little direct impact on the Syrian civil war, it has given Trump a needed success that he has savored. Trump tweeted on Saturday his “congratulations to our great military men and women” who took part in the action. On Sunday night, while on Air Force One flying home to Washington, Trump phoned his thanks to the commanding officers of the two destroyers that launched the Tomahawk missiles – calls which then were publicized by the White House communication office.

One worrisome lesson Trump may take from this past week, as Ross Douthat pointed out in his Sunday New York Times column, is that because of this “success,” his generals seem “increasing likely to steer his statecraft going forward…[and] the military has a strong bias toward, well, military solutions whenever crises or challenges emerge.”

And while “These solutions are not usually huge invasions or expensive nation-building exercises,” Douthat writes, “they treat bombs and missiles and drone strikes and (in limited, extractable numbers) boots on the ground as first-resort tools of statecraft.”

Trump wants immediate results and does not appear to recognize as president, as well as commander-in-chief, he must consider secondary and tertiary longer term results that may come from any quick, immediate military decisions.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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