Report

Syrian Chemical Weapons Prompts Missile Volley From Trump

U.S. is “locked and loaded” for more strikes, but only if Assad uses chemical weapons.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the press on the strikes against Syria at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on April 14. 2018. 
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the press on the strikes against Syria at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on April 14. 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Friday’s U.S.-led missile attack against Syria aimed at sending an unmistakable message that any future use of chemical weapons would trigger a military response from the West.

“If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council Saturday at an emergency meeting convened by Russia in an attempt to protest the strike.

But the limited nature of the strikes sent another unintended message: the United States has no intention of using its firepower to halt the mass killing of civilians through conventional means, degrade Syria’s military forces, or to challenge Russia and Iran’s military positions is Syria.

The restricted target list — three facilities linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program — appeared to have reflected the more cautious influence of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who feared that President Donald Trump’s hint of wider war threatened to deepen Washington’s involvement in a war that President appears eager to quit.

The strikes on the Syrian chemical weapons program may cause Damascus to think twice about using such agents in the future, but the limited operation reflects a deeply cold-hearted calculus in Washington: the Assad regime can slaughter its own population as long is it doesn’t use chemical weapons to do it.

“That’s exactly the message that’s been sent,” says Aaron Stein, a Middle East scholar with the Atlantic Council. “People can try and shift the goalposts, but the goalposts are really narrowly construed around deterring chemical weapons use,” he says.

The air attack targeted a Syrian chemical and biological weapons research, development, and production center in Barzah, Syria, as well as a chemical weapons storage facility and chemical bunker near Homs, Syria. The Barzah facility is linked to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which has been at the center of country’s once-secret chemical weapons program since the 1970s.

Trump cheered early Saturday a “perfectly executed” joint strike, adding “Mission Accomplished!”

As Syrian and Russian officials assessed the damage wrought by the launch of more than 100 cruise missiles, White House officials told reporters Saturday that the attack achieved its objective.

“The main goal was to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons program and we think we have successfully done that,” a senior administration official said Saturday.

But American officials made clear that the strikes had not eliminated Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Saturday the strikes had hit the “heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons program and set it back by several years.

But “residual” elements of that weapons program remain, McKenzie said. “I’m not going to to say they won’t be able to conduct a chemical attack in the future,” he said.

The U.S. missile attack came less than one week after Syrian helicopters dropped explosives containing chlorine and smaller traces of sarin on a lone opposition stronghold in the Douma suburb of Damascus, killing nearly 50 people, including women and children, and injuring hundreds more, according to U.S. and French claims.

Following the attack, President Donald Trump warned that Syria and its key sponsors, Russia and Iran, would be forced to “pay a price” for the attack, and pledged to launch a strike against Syria for the second time in just over a year. Trump had previously ordered an airstrike on April 6, 2017, in retaliation for Syria’s use of the nerve agent against the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Following the latest missile strike, French and U.S. authorities released detailed assessments that both concluded the Syrian government was responsible for last week’s attack on Douma.

The French government’s assessment portrayed the chemical attack as the culmination of a months-long Syrian government military offensive that succeeded in restoring control of the restive suburb.

Syria decided to use chemical weapons to shore up its military offensive on Douma after an April 4 surrender agreement with rebel forces from Jaish al-Islam collapsed, leaving a group of up to 5,500 insurgents in the town, according to the French assessment.

“As a result, from 6 April onwards, the Syrian regime, with support from Russian forces, resumed its intensive bombing of the area,” the French assessment claims. “Given this context, the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons makes sense from both the military and strategic points of view.”

The American assessment, released by the White House late Friday, cited social media evidence, statements by NGOs, and video and photo evidence from Duma pointing toward the use of chlorine. The American assessment said Syrian government helicopters were spotted circling Duma during the attack. “Numerous eyewitnesses corroborate that barrel bombs were dropped from these helicopters, a tactic used to target civilians indiscriminately throughout the war,” the assessment notes.

American officials said on Saturday that they are confident chlorine was used in the attack in Douma and said they also believe sarin had been used, but that they possessed less evidence to back up that conclusion. Doctors and aid organizations “described symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin,” the Friday assessment notes.

According to the United States, Syria has repeatedly used chemical weapons in the last year, despite Trump’s April 2017 cruise missile strike. That includes an alleged sarin gas attack on opposition forces in the Damascus suburb of Harasta on November 18, 2017.

Syria agreed to scrap 90 percent of its declared chemical weapons in September 2013 in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia. But international inspectors soon realized that Syria had failed to disclose its development of key chemical weapon agents, including sarin, VX, and soman. Inspectors concluded that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sarin, in a number of instances. They also concluded that the Islamic State had used sulfur mustard on the Syrian battlefield.

Haley claimed Saturday that Syria has used chemical weapons some fifty times during the course of the country’s seven-year long civil war, including multiple attacks since the U.S. launched missile strikes at Syria last year. The French cited 44 allegations of chemical weapons use since April 4, 2017, of which 11 — mostly chlorine attacks — have been confirmed by French authorities. French intelligence services believe that a “neurotoxic agent” was used at Harasta on November 18, 2017.

The U.S. strikes were limited for two reasons. U.S. defense officials selected a small number of targets to minimize civilian casualties and avoid striking any Russian troops or equipment that could spark a wider conflict.

More significantly, degrading the Syrian chemical weapons program would require more intense military action at a time when Damascus appears to be building up its ability to use poison gas. A recent internal U.N. report suggested the Assad regime is beefing up its chemical weapons infrastructure, thanks in part to shipments it received from the North Korean regime of supplies used in chemical weapons production.

Experts argue the strikes may reduce Damascus’s ability to deliver sarin, if the stocks of chemical precursors were targeted, said Gregory Koblentz, the director of the graduate biodefense program at George Mason University. But “it won’t do anything to affect their ability to deliver chlorine bombs since [chlorine] is commercially available. They can import it openly,” he said.

On Saturday, U.S. and Russian officials faced off over the strikes in a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council, where the Russian ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, condemned the military operation.

“This is hooliganism in international relations, and not minor hooliganism, given that we’re talking about major nuclear powers,” Nebenzia said. But Russia failed go muster support in the 15-nation council to condemn the attacks.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres hinted that the strikes may have been illegal under international law, since they were not authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

“The U.N. Charter is very clear on these issues. The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” Guterres said Saturday. “I call on the members of the Security Council to unite and exercise that responsibility.”

Most Republican lawmakers praised Trump’s decision to strike Syria. But Trump’s policy whiplash on Syria — a week ago, he abruptly said he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from the fight — has grated national security experts and top Democratic lawmakers. They say the president launched the strikes without a coherent strategy on Syria and without a Congressional greenlight.

“We should be clear: military strikes are no substitute for a real strategy,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement released on Friday.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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