- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase late Thursday in reprisal for a deadly chemical weapons attack this week by the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, a stark reversal from the president’s formerly stand-off approach to the six-year old civil war.
Two U.S. Navy warships launched over 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al-Shayrat air base in Homs, home to both Syrian and Russian warplanes. Tuesday’s sarin gas attack, which killed more than 70 and injured more than 300, was launched from there. One official told Foreign Policy that the base was struck in multiple locations, and American military officials warned the Russian government of the impending attack, giving them time to move assets and troops away from the base.
There is no indication if the Russians informed their Syrian allies of the attack, what targets were hit, or the number of potential casualties on the ground.
The missiles strike followed two days of intense diplomatic activity at the United Nations, as the U.S., Britain and France sought support for a U.N. Security Council draft resolution demanding Syria hand over intelligence on its air operations, including any flight plans produced on the day of the chemical attack. The draft resolution also demanded the names of all commanders of Syria’s helicopter squads, and obliged Syria to arrange meetings with senior Syrian military officers within five days.
Russia dismissed the proposal as unnecessary, noting that the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons already had the authority to investigate the attack, which it claimed was caused when Syria bombed a terrorist warehouse that contained chemical agents. On Thursday, presented its own competing resolution that urge the international inspectors to visit the site of the attack, but which also would have placed fresh constraints on them. For instance, the Russian plan would have granted authority to the Security Council’s 15 members, including Russia, to vet any of the investigators.
The council’s 10 non-permanent members, meanwhile, tried to break the impasse, circulating their own compromise resolution that would have condemned the use of chemical weapons, and called on Syria to cooperate with any investigation by international chemical weapons experts. But the draft would stripped out some of the toughest U.S.-backed provisions placing new reporting obligations on Damascus.
The council met behind closed doors Thursday evening to determine if their were grounds for agreement, but Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a senior Russian diplomat, Vladimir Safronkov, quickly squared off in a “heated and acrimonious” dispute over their widely divergent approaches. Finally, a British diplomat, Stephen Hickey, tweeted from inside the chamber that the “UN Security Council will no longer vote on the [UN Security Council resolution] on #Syria this evening.”
The strike increases overnight the U.S. involvement in the civil war in Syria, and could put hundreds of U.S. soldiers in northern Syria at risk, as they train and equip Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters preparing to assault the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
But it’s not clear exactly what the administration seeks to achieve in Syria — just a week ago, it signalled a willingness to let Assad continue in power — or why a limited strike on a single airfield would somehow change the calculus of the Syrian leader, who has deployed every weapon in his arsenal to crush the uprising that began in 2011.
The legal authority for the strikes is also unclear. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, under which the United States conducts counterterror strikes in the region, applies to terrorist groups, not states. The administration could point to legal justifications drafted during the Obama administration for the 2011 intervention in Libya, which allows for unilateral, punitive strikes on humanitarian grounds. But some lawmakers — citing Trump’s own long-held positions — said that Congress must authorize deeper U.S. involvement against the Syrian regime.
President Trump said Thursday evening in a televised address that the strike on the airbase was in the “vital national security interest of the U.S. to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said that “initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft” and equipment, while “trying minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”
Tuesday’s attack in Idlib was at least the fourth time that Syria has used chemical weapons since the beginning of the civil war, and Trump vociferously opposed any U.S. action against Assad before he was president. In addition to proposing budget cuts for U.N. programs that monitor chemical weapons programs like Syria’s, the Trump administration has also banned Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s violence from entering the United States.
Trump authorized the strike after being briefed on the target by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis earlier in the day. The cruise missile strike was on the more limited end of the range of options that secretary Mattis presented the president, a military official said. Trump is in the middle of a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Palm Beach, Fla., resort.
Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned Washington Thursday not to strike Syrian government targets. “We have to think about negative consequences, and all the responsibility if military action occurred will be on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise,” Safronkov told reporters.
In a joint statement, senators John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the operation “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said the strikes “send a clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons.”
He added, however, “any longer-term or larger military operation in Syria by the Trump Administration will need to be done in consultation with the Congress.”
Foreign Policy’s senior diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this report from the United Nations.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy