Trump Strikes Syrian Base in Wake of Chemical Attack

Analysis and commentary about Donald Trump’s first direct military action against Bashar al-Assad.

The American guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens fires a missile at an airborne drone during a live fire weapons shoot in the Pacific Ocean, September 20, 2012
The American guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens fires a missile at an airborne drone during a live fire weapons shoot in the Pacific Ocean, September 20, 2012 (USN/Paul Kelly)
  • American cruise missiles struck a Syrian air base near Homs early on Friday from which the United States said a chemical attack had been launched earlier in the week.
  • It was the first direct American military action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in six years.
  • President Donald Trump announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
  • The Syrian army said six of its people were killed in the attack.
  • Russia, Assad’s ally, condemned the strike as an act of aggression.
Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201710:40 AM

Support from allies key

Allies in Europe and the Middle East have voices support for the airstrikes. Reuters reports that several countries were notified in advance, but none was asked to take part in the attack.

  • France and Germany blame Assad: “His repeated use of chemical weapons, and his crimes against his own population, demanded a punishment.”
  • Poland said America guarantees world peace and there are times when it must act.
  • Israel praised Trump for sending a “strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.”
  • Turkey welcomed the strikes and said it would support further steps to ensure that those who use chemical weapons are held to account.
  • Saudi Arabia called the attack “courageous”.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other majority-Sunni allies in the Middle East have for years urged the United States to do more to topple Assad. They see the Syrian conflict through the prism of their regional cold war with Iran. Assad is the only Arab ally of the regime in Tehran.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201711:27 AM

Strike divides French presidential candidates key

Of the four top presidential candidates in France, only the centrist former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, has voiced support for the American airstrikes. He previously called for a military intervention in Syria under the auspices of the United Nations.

François Fillon, the center-right Republican candidate and a former prime minister, reiterated his support for a “dialogue” with Russia.

The far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon have made common cause against the attack, with the warning Trump on Twitter that he is making the same mistake as the United States did in Iraq.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201712:39 PM

Assad is no ally against the Islamic State

American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6
American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

As recently as last week, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, appeared to soften America’s position, saying Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people”.

Trump himself left open the possibility of an alliance with Assad and Russia against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Last night’s airstrikes suggest he has changed his mind.

It is tempting to think that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, but the conflict in Syria is more complicated.

It was Assad who helped create the Islamic State by killing everybody else who resisted his tyranny. From the beginning of the uprising in 2011, Assad maintained that the choice was between him and madness — and he made sure madness prevailed on the other side.

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Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201712:55 PM

Assad’s allies condemn attack

The Foreign Ministry of Iran warned that Thursday night’s attack will “strengthen terrorists in Syria” and “complicate” the war. A spokesperson for the Kremlin said the airstrikes “will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties.”

Iran and Russia both have troops in Syria to help Assad regain control of his country.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20171:01 PM

Details of the strike

From the Financial Times:

At around 4:40 AM local time on Friday, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Shayrat airbase from two destroyers in the Mediterranean. The Tomahawk has been a mainstay of US power-projection since the First Gulf War. Each cruise missile has a range of up to 2,500 kilometers, making them ideal for firing into contested airspace without endangering US lives. The missiles fly low, to avoid most radar, and travel at subsonic speed.

The guided-missile destroyers in question were the Porter and Ross. The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush is currently on deployment in the Persian Gulf.

The last time the United States lobbed Tomahawks at Syria was in 2014. The target then was not Assad but an Al Qaeda offshoot called the Khorasan group.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20172:11 PM

Alt-right dismayed

Trump’s Assad- and Putin-admiring “alt-right” supporters are dismayed. Quartz reports that the anti-globalist right feels betrayed. “This isn’t what I voted for.” BuzzFeed has a similar story.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20172:19 PM

Heartening sign of realism from Moscow

Mark Galeotti, a top Russia expert, points out that Russian air defenses in Syria, which could have been deployed against the Tomahawks, weren’t even activated:

Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it. That is a heartening sign of realism.

Much now depends on backchanneling between Damascus and Moscow, according to Galeotti. Will the message from the Kremlin be, “Don’t worry, this was just a one-off, but lay off the chemicals,” or, “What the hell were you doing, stop making this worse for us all?”

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20172:48 PM

Syria isn’t black and white

Trump seems to prefer clear, black-and-white choices — such as a missile strike to punish barbarity — but Syria does not offer many of those, writes David Gardner in the Financial Times:

For the US, Syria is horrendously complex. Its forces are fighting in alignment with archenemy Iran to evict [the Islamic State] from Mosul across the border in Iraq while they are at loggerheads with allied Turkey, a member of NATO, which is fighting against ISIS and Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies in northwest Syria.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20172:52 PM

Significant timing

The American Interest argues that the timing of the attack was significant:

The strikes occurred just as President Trump was having dinner with Xi Jinping of China, and, according to AFP, Trump delivered the news to Xi personally. The subtext was unmistakeable: Get serious about North Korea; our recent threats were not idle. Don Corleone himself couldn’t have set a better table.

Dean Klovens Dean Klovens 7 Apr 20173:07 PM

An insignificant attack

At the end of the day, this attack won’t amount to much because the United States will need to put troops in Syria to really get the job done. If this had to be rethought, the US could have worked with the Israeli Mossad to plan on taking out Assad. Therein lies the problem.

Ryan Bohl Ryan Bohl 7 Apr 20173:57 PM

Syria’s endgame

An American military officer points to a map showing areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, April 21, 2016
An American military officer points to a map showing areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, April 21, 2016 (DoD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

Assad may go into exile as part of a final deal, but his supporters and his government will remain intact. There won’t be a democracy: none of the great powers see any use in that. Instead, Syria is likely to look a lot like Lebanon in the 1990s, with varying fiefs propped up by outsiders.

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Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20176:54 PM

Missiles fell within hair of Russian forces

Russia has said last night’s attack came within a hair of clashing with its forces. Reuters reports that satellite imagery suggest the Shayrat airbase that was hit is home to Russian military helicopters and special forces.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20176:05 PM

Strikes complicate fight against Islamic State key

Andrew Exum, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Barack Obama, argues in The Atlantic that although America’s hand in negotiations over the fate of Bashar al-Assad is now strengthened, the fight against the Islamic State could become more complicated.

Neither Assad nor Russia has done much to prevent American planes from bombing Islamic State targets in Syria. That could change.

The Guardian‘s Julian Borger reports that Vladimir Putin has already suspended the “deconfliction channel” between the American and Russian militaries, which allowed them to tell each other where they were sending their jets in order to prevent collisions. This could force the American-led coalition to limit its air campaign against the Islamic State or risk a head-on clash with Russia that could spiral out of control.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20177:42 PM

Criticism from The Atlantic

David Frum argues that last night’s attack casts doubt on Trump’s reliability. He campaigned against military involvement in Syria only to involve the United States militarily in Syria. He campaigned against military engagement in the absence of an end plan only to engage the military without an end plan. He insisted that Barack Obama needed Congress’ approval for airstrikes only to bypass Congress himself.

Conor Friedersdorf is especially critical on the last point, writing:

Congress erred by doing nothing when Obama waged war illegally in Libya. It will compound that error if there are no consequences now for Trump. Every legislator who has expressed the belief that it would be illegal to strike Syria without their permission should start acting like they meant what they said.

The alternative, Friedersdorf warns, is giving free rein to a man who is out of his depth in international affairs and thinks of waging war as a way presidents can shore up their popularity.

Steve Keller Steve Keller 7 Apr 20177:19 PM

Trump’s inconsistency key

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Critics are calling Trump’s missile strike against Syria a flip flop, but it’s really the logical outcome of holding two wildly inconsistent opinions on an issue.

In 2013, Trump said to President Barack Obama, via Twitter (caps his):

AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!

Indeed, Trump has expressed a consistent willingness to allow Bashar Assad, a Russian puppet, to stay in power so as to focus exclusively on defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

While problematic, it is at least an internally consistent talking point.

But since 2013, Trump has picked up the “red line” criticism of Obama, which argues that the Democrat erred in failing to strike Assad after chemical weapons were used in Ghouta that year.

The inconsistency in holding these two positions is obvious: Trump argued against attacking Assad in 2013 but has since claimed Obama should have enforced his red line. By what means, then?

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Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 20178:54 PM

No good options for Russia

Julia Ioffe argues in The Atlantic that Russia has no good options:

It gathered an international coalition to dispose of Assad’s chemical weapons, and made political hay out of their destruction, only to have Assad make Moscow’s effort look either less than thorough or gruesomely insincere. Either way, Russia doesn’t look like much of a guarantor.

It can’t simply withdraw its support from Assad either. Russia still has interests in Syria and pulling back now would perturb the few allies it has in the world.

There is a lesson here, writes Ioffe, for Westerners who fetishize Putin as the ultimate, perfect villain, who outfoxes the hemming, hawing United States at every turn:

Putin is brilliant at finding quick maneuvers that advance his agenda in the moment. He too kicks the can down the road, repeatedly. But that road is not endless and time doesn’t always work in his favor. Or, put another way, when you become a guarantor, at some point the bill comes due.

Left with a little sarin and emboldened by his gains on the battlefield — thanks in no small part to Putin’s help — Assad was bound to transgress again. Does Russia still have leverage over him now?

Ryan Bohl Ryan Bohl 7 Apr 20178:27 PM

Trump has been swept away by events key

King Abdullah II of Jordan and American president Donald Trump prepare to deliver a news conference outside the White House in Washington DC, April 5
King Abdullah II of Jordan and American president Donald Trump prepare to deliver a news conference outside the White House in Washington DC, April 5 (White House/Shealah Craighead)

Trump came to power pretending a moral purity driven by self-interest: He would drain the swamp of insider elites, prevent conflict with Russia, fight only smart wars. He would manage the United States with the same ruthless edge as he managed his business empire and produce great prosperity.

In that view, there was no profit in bombing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Not until Wednesday’s chemical attack.

Now President Trump has begun to accept his role in the American geopolitical entity. Just as so many presidents before him, he struggled against its tide only to be swept away by events.

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Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201710:10 PM

A way out for Russia

Dmitry Gorenburg argues that Friday morning’s airstrikes may have given Russia a way out of the dilemma Julia Ioffe described earlier:

Russian leaders can now turn the focus away from the chemical weapons attack itself and toward the US airstrikes as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, Assad has been put on notice that the US is not going to stand idly by if he persists in using chemical weapons, which may make him more reluctant to take that risk again, eliminating that method of putting pressure on Russia from his toolkit.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201710:18 PM

Change in strategy unlikely

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook writes for Salon that American strategy toward Assad — much like American strategy toward the Islamic State — is unlikely to change, Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding.

This is not because Trump is indifferent — “an unfair charge often leveled at the Obama Administration’s Syria policy.” It’s rather because the situation is complex in ways that cannot be captured in 140 characters of outrage.

Obama’s team couldn’t find a way to simultaneously punish the Assad regime, force the Russians to back down, relieve Syrian suffering and restore American credibility without putting Americans troops in the Levant for years to come. It is unlikely Trump’s team will.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 7 Apr 201710:29 PM

Germans worry Trump acted for the wrong reasons key

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 17
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 17 (Bundesregierung)

Roland Nelles writes for Der Spiegel that it would be comforting if the man sitting in the Oval Office was more levelheaded.

Unfortunately, though, it is Donald Trump, and he hasn’t thus far given any indication that he is able to develop an intelligent, coherent and rigorous strategy.

Berthold Kohler similarly argues in the liberal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “pushing the launch button is not a strategy.”

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Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 8 Apr 201712:14 PM

The Russians are coming

Russia has deployed one of its most powerful warships to the Eastern Mediterranean, the same area from where the destroyers Porter and Ross fired cruise missiles at Syria early on Friday.

The TASS news agency reports that the Admiral Grigorovich, which was commissioned only last year, is sailing for Tartus, where Russia has a naval base.

The ship took part in exercises with the Turkish navy in the Black Sea this week. It is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, some of the most advanced in the Russian inventory.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 8 Apr 201712:27 PM

More pro-Arab policy under Trump key

Egypt's Abdul Fatah Sisi shakes hands with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, April 3
Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi shakes hands with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, April 3 (EPA ISP/Olivier Douliery)

Friday’s missile strike came at a time when America is aligning more closely again with its traditional allies in the Middle East.

Sunni-majority nations have long urged the United States to do more to topple Bashar al-Assad, who they see as a proxy for their nemesis, Iran.

Barack Obama balked at becoming an instrument of the Arab states. But Matthew Yglesias writes for Vox that Donald Trump shares their worldview.

Click here to read more.

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