How Will This Attack on Syria Be Any Different?

President Trump ordered the military action days after an alleged chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime in Douma.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Updated at 10:12 p.m.

The U.S. military—supported by Britain and France—launched strikes against key government targets in Syria on Friday, nearly a week after the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta.

“The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality,” President Donald Trump said in a broadcast statement late Friday, as he criticized Russia and Iran for acts support of the Syrian regime.

General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said three facilities were struck: the first a scientific research center in the Damascus area; the second a chemical-weapons storage facility west of Homs, which he said the U.S. “assessed … was [the] primary location of Syrian sarin;” and third, another chemical-weapons equipment storage facility and command post. There was no coordination with Russia on the strikes, nor was Moscow informed, he said.

“The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons program,” he said. “We also selected targets that would minimize the risk to innocent civilians.”

The strike is the second time the Trump administration has responded in this manner to a chemical-weapons attack in Syria. In April 2017, the U.S. struck an airfield near Homs in response to a sarin-gas attack by the Assad regime on Khan Sheikhoun.

Trump had signaled Friday’s strike almost immediately after news reports emerged of last Saturday’s attack on Douma, the last rebel redoubt near the capital Damascus. On Twitter last Sunday, Trump accused Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as well as Iran, of backing “Animal Assad” and warned of a “big price to pay.” On Monday, Trump was more specific, saying he would be “making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours.”

“We cannot allow atrocities like that,” Trump said, speaking of the attack on Douma, adding everyone involved in the alleged attack “will pay a price.” Speaking Monday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to “rule out anything right now.” Then, as the U.S. and its allies coordinated on how to respond, and Russia vowed to retaliate against any Western aggression in Syria, it wasn’t clear what form the strikes would take—until Friday.

“The evil and despicable attack left mothers and fathers, women, and children thrashing in pain,” Trump said Friday, calling the attack in Douma the “crimes of a monster.”

It was a dramatic action at the end of a dramatic few days. But we’ve seen a version of this before. What's different about these strikes, Trump said: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” And, as Dunford pointed out later, while the previous strike hit one facility, this one struck three. And while the last one was unilateral, this one involved the British and the French.

But, as was the case with the last strike, we won’t immediately know how effective Friday’s strikes were in stopping further chemical attacks—or what will happen should Russia intervene militarily.

In a statement in London, U.K. Prime Minister Teresa May said the Western nations “sought to use every possible diplomatic channel” to prevent the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria. “This persistent pattern of behavior must be stopped.” French President Emmanuel Macron, in a separate statement, added: “Our response has been limited to the capabilities of the Syrian regime for the production and use of chemical weapons.”

In the previous U.S. strike against Syria, in April 2017, the U.S. fired 59 cruise  missiles into Syria, targeting the al-Shayrat military airfield near Homs. That was the airbase from which Assad is said to have carried out the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. The strike destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure; a Pentagon spokesman said at the time that it reduced “the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”

The coordinated action Friday did not have the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council, where any such proposal would have almost certainly been vetoed by Russia, Assad’s main backer, and China, which is disinclined to favor military interventions in other countries. In fact, Russia used its veto power Tuesday to stop a U.S.-sponsored resolution to investigate the attack in Douma and determine who was responsible. The UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was in Damascus Saturday to determine whether chemical weapons were used in Douma. The fate of that visit is now unclear. Russia said Friday that Britain had orchestrated the chemical attack—a claim the U.K. dismissed.

Critics of the Trump administration have questioned whether the president has the legal authority to act in Syria, but the White House says its actions are covered by the controversial War Powers Act, which allows the president to use military force without congressional authority, and its congressional supporters say the strikes are covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was passed after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The U.S. has plenty of other military options in the region. Besides U.S. military bases in Turkey, Qatar, and elsewhere, the U.S., The New York Times said, has two Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyers in the Mediterranean that “would be able to get within striking range within hours to days.” But if previous strikes are any guide, Trump’s action Friday will ultimately have little impact in Syria.

On the other hand, the new action in Syria illustrates the difficulty the Trump administration has had in extricating itself from the conflict. Just two weeks ago, Trump told supporters that the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would leave the country “like, very soon.” At about the same time, the U.S. military was reportedly planning to send dozens more troops to the country to fight ISIS. Amid the confusion, last week the White House issued a statement attributed to the press secretary, not the president, saying the troops would remain in Syria until ISIS was defeated. The statement did not say how long they would stay; news reports said Trump, who campaigned for president on a platform of keeping the U.S. away from foreign entanglements, wanted them out by November. (Nor did the statement say that the U.S. would have any role in responding to attacks on civilians.) Trump said Friday that the U.S. “does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria. We look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home.”

Friday’s strike also underscores how the Trump administration’s policy toward Syria differs from the Obama administration’s approach—as well as how, ultimately, their approaches are similar.

President Obama famously set a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but when Assad used them anyway, Obama worked on an agreement with Russia that would see Assad’s stockpiles destroyed. Assad’s multiple uses of chemical weapons since then shows the gaps in the deal. Trump, on the other hand, appears to have been moved by the effect of chemical weapons on civilians, especially children, and he has now ordered two military strikes on Assad’s facilities. Ultimately, while Trump and Obama might have reacted differently to the use of such weapons, the end result was the same: Assad retained the ability to use chemical weapons—and he is more in control of Syria than at any point since the civil war began in March 2011.

Any damage sustained to Syrian military facilities can be repaired by Assad’s benefactors, Russia and Iran. Assad has all but won the conflict at a great cost: More than 500,000 people have been killed, the war has created more than 5 million refugees, and entire cities have been flattened. Unless the U.S. supplements Friday’s actions with a broader military role in Syria—one that neither the president nor the American public has the appetite for—Assad will not only remain in power, but also retain his ability to target his people.