Assad Shrugs off Trump’s Strike, Uses Just-Hit Airbase to Bomb Rebels
Less than 24 hours after Tomahawk missiles pounded an airbase used in a chemical weapons attack, Assad regime warplanes are reportedly back in the air.
Syrian fighter aircraft used the just-struck al-Shayrat airfield on Friday to launch attacks against regime opponents, less than 24 hours after the United States tossed dozens of missiles at the base with the hopes of sending a “message” to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about its use of chemical weapons.
The immediate Syrian defiance highlighted the pinprick nature of the U.S. reprisal, which the Trump administration — and plenty of lawmakers from both parties — cheered as a seemingly tough response to Syria’s repeated use of banned weapons to cow a rebellious populace. Some 80 people died in the sarin gas attack Tuesday, which was carried out by the Syrian regime, according to U.S. officials.
Looming over the broadly-cheered strikes on Friday was the apparent lack of any overarching strategy to lever Assad out of power or facilitate a political solution to the six-year old Syrian civil war. Key allies, most of the State Department, and Congress were all kept in the dark regarding the missile launch, which Trump announced to Chinese President Xi Jinping as the two dined Thursday at Trump’s Florida resort.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday said the aim of the operation, involving 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. naval ships in the eastern Mediterranean, was to render the airbase “inoperable.” He called the strike, which targeted the airfield and support structures nearby, an “overwhelming success.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported warplanes were seen flying from al-Shayrat — and unconfirmed video clips online appeared to show a Sukhoi Su-22 lifting off the runway — even as U.S. officials sought to portray Thursday’s Tomahawk missile strikes as a succes.
The United States said the base was used in Tuesday’s attack, which prompted Trump to reverse years of skepticism about deeper U.S. involvement in the war and greenlight an escalation.
At the same time, though, the administration sent muddled messages about just what it was trying to achieve. The White House insisted it was a one-off attack prompted by humanitarian concerns about the Assad regime’s use of prohibited weapons. Tillerson said it reflected no shift in U.S. policy toward Syria, even as he underscored fears that Syrian chemical weapons could be used in a terrorist attack in the United States.
Yet Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington won’t tolerate Assad slaughtering civilians with chemical weapons, and said further strikes are possible. Meanwhile, Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said on Thursday the military operation could cause “a big shift in Assad’s calculus,” as it was the first time the United States had taken direct military action against the Syrian regime.
Even though the plight of Syrian civilians, especially children, butchered by the Assad regime apparently pushed Trump to take action, the administration said there are no plans at present to reconsider the travel bans on Syrian civilians fleeing the horror to seek asylum in the United States.
Even before Thursday’s strikes, the absence of a coherent U.S. strategy toward the Middle East was already worrying many in Congress and in foreign capitals. After less than three months in office, the Trump administration has quickly deployed additional troops and heavy weapons to Iraq and Syria, ramped up the air war against the Islamic State, unleashed operations in Yemen against the local al Qaeda affiliate, and opened a new front against the Syrian state.
Yet there is no indication that the Trump administration has tried to link those tactical operations to any broader strategy. Congress, which largely supported Trump’s move Thursday, suggested any broader U.S. involvement in Syria would require legislative authorization, hinting at limited appetite for an open-ended engagement there.
Within a week, the Trump administration’s stance on Syria has veered wildly in opposite directions, creating uncertainty for friends and foes alike. Last Thursday, the administration indicated it was ready to tolerate Assad staying in power, and that his departure was not a top priority. A week later, cruise missiles were airborne, heading for a Syrian airfield.
Photo credit: FORD WILLIAMS/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce