For a Second Strike on Syria, Trump Will Have to Go Big
With little to show for last year’s missile attack, the Trump administration is contemplating a larger campaign against the Assad government.
If U.S. President Donald Trump decides to take military action against the Syrian government in response to Saturday’s chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, he would almost certainly have to approve a wider operation than the limited strikes he ordered just over a year ago.
“In order for the administration to actually inflict enough pain on the [Bashar al-]Assad government to send the signal that Trump wants, the U.S. would have to hit a wider package of targets,” says Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “That would essentially cripple Assad’s military capabilities.”
Given the ineffectiveness of previous one-off attacks, the U.S. military would also potentially need to engage in sustained airstrikes and publicly commit to targeting government facilities every time chemical weapons were used in the future.
Last year’s U.S. Tomahawk missile strike, carried out in response to a sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, made headlines but did little to check the Syrian government’s willingness or ability to carry out further assaults.
Although U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea fired 59 missiles at the air base from which the attack was launched, the strikes failed to inflict serious damage on the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpiles or its military capabilities. Indeed, Syrian aircraft took off from the same air base just hours later.
And since then, Damascus has continued to deploy a variety of chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces throughout the country. The Assad government has launched at least two other chlorine gas attacks since the Khan Sheikhoun incident, with little international response and no retaliation from Washington.
That history, plus Trump’s new hawkish national security advisor, makes a bigger response more likely this time.
“It would be very damaging to say there’s a big price to pay and then do less than we did last time,” one congressional aide says.
According to Heras, Washington may decide to target government strongholds both in the west of the country as well as in the east.
“It will be a bit of a balancing act,” says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University. “There are going to be people in the U.S. military who will want to strike really hard.”
Whether or not such a large-scale operation will lead the United States into a confrontation with Assad’s main patron, Russia, is less clear. The answer depends in part on the severity of the U.S. military action and whether or not the administration is “willing to sustain strikes against Syria each time the [Assad] government uses a small amount of chlorine gas,” Ford says.
“We’re pulling all of our plans off the shelf, but ultimately it’s the president’s decision. He has a lot of options he can take, and not all of them are military,” Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon says.
U.S. naval ships — some of them armed with Tomahawk missiles — are at the ready in the region, with the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook having wrapped up a port visit in Cyprus earlier Monday.
Trump’s deputies also are in discussions with the Britain and France over possible joint military action. Both European allies are members of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, and France offered to take part in retaliatory strikes against the Syrian regime in 2013 before President Barack Obama decided against military action.
In February, French President Emmanuel Macron said France would launch strikes if he saw proof that chemical weapons had been used against civilians. Trump and Macron discussed the situation on Sunday and collectively vowed a “strong, joint response,” the White House said in a statement.
As White House and senior officials met Monday afternoon to review options, congressional aides said military action was likely within about 24 hours. “My understanding is that the Trump team is going deep on this,” Heras says. “This is Trump’s ‘red line’ moment.”
Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. @Rhys_Dubin