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.