Months later, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, declared its stockpile of chemical weapons, and shipped them out—some 1,300 metric tons of them—under international supervision. Israel, which was directly threatened by Syrian gas, hailed the action and stopped distributing gas masks throughout the country. Bombing would not have brought about the removal of Syria’s declared stockpile. It was achieved through the credible threat of the use of force and painstaking U.S.-Russia diplomacy.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story. While we made a considerable effort to address any gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration, including by raising such issues with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we were never fully satisfied that Syria had declared every element of its program. Ultimately, we were never able to point to anything specific enough to prove our suspicions to the OPCW. Or maybe Syria made new sarin gas. What we do know is that in April 2017 and again in April 2018, Syria killed scores more in fresh chemical attacks. In both instances, President Donald Trump dusted off the Obama-era military plans and target list, and struck suspect facilities with cruise missiles and air strikes.
In my view, President Trump was right to act against Assad, who, with Russian complicity, had violated his agreement with the United States and the UN. But Trump’s strikes were divorced from any strategy to leverage the use of American force to catalyze a diplomatic solution. Senior Trump-administration officials issued mixed public messages about the objective of the bombings, which further complicated matters. Ultimately, these U.S. strikes sent a message, but failed to change any facts on the ground. The conflict persisted, and Assad grew stronger while continuing to kill innocents.
In both 2017 and 2018, the United States made clear too quickly that these were short-lived, limited packages of strikes. The Trump administration failed to keep Assad and Russia guessing, limiting its ability to again use the credible threat of force to pursue a diplomatic outcome that addressed our chemical-weapons concerns or brought the conflict closer to conclusion. Syria’s chemical-weapons problem remains unresolved. So, too, does the larger Syria-policy conundrum.
Peter Beinart: Trump’s “conventional” approach to Syria
For six years, the Obama administration wrestled painfully and unsuccessfully with Syria. Assad, the murderous dictator, remains hell-bent on regaining full control from rebels who once occupied significant swaths of Syrian territory. He uses whatever vicious means necessary—barrel bombs, chemical weapons, targeting hospitals—to kill hundreds of thousands and cause millions to flee as refugees.
The human costs of his slaughter stung our collective conscience. They also directly implicated U.S. interests by driving destabilizing refugee flows into fragile states such as Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, and further afield to Europe, which has not recovered politically or socially from the shock of the inflow. The active intervention of Hezbollah, Iran, and later Russia dramatically worsened the conflict, aiding Assad but also threatening Israel. Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, exploited the chaos to establish safe havens from which they planned attacks on the West. It was a complete horror show that only got worse with time. At every stage, the dilemma for the Obama administration was how deeply to involve the U.S. in trying to topple Assad and stop the bloodshed and refugee flows.