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The US has bombed Syria to punish it for a chemical attack

This is likely the “big price” Trump wants the Syrian government to pay.

Weapon used by the Pentagon in the April 13, 2018 strike on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack a week earlier.
US Department of Defense.

The United States, along with Britain and France, just bombed Syria. It’s the second time the US has waded into the country’s seven-year conflict in response to a chemical weapons attack.

The allies hit three targets, including the capital of Damascus, all related to Syria’s chemical program with 105 weapons: an important research center, a storage facility, and an equipment facility and command post. Damascus residents said they awoke to explosions. The strikes reportedly came from coalition cruise missile-equipped ships and warplanes.

The strikes hit at the “very heart” of Syria’s chemical weapon program and dealt it a “serious blow,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., a top Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Saturday morning. But McKenzie also noted that Syria could reconstitute its program and that the strikes didn’t take out all of its chemical weapons abilities. He added that the strikes were conducted to purposely minimize the spread of chemical weapons that might’ve been stored at the facilities.

The map of Syria below shows the targets the US, Britain, and France hit on Friday.

Map of Syria and targets the US, Britain, and France hit on April 13.
Map of Syria and targets the US, Britain, and France hit on April 13.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The Trump administration has offered mixed messages about its commitment to attacking Syria after chemical attacks. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” President Donald Trump said from the White House on Friday night.

But soon after, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gave a different assessment. “Right now, this is a one-time shot,” Mattis said, “designed to set back the Syrian war machine’s ability to produce chemical weapons.” He did note the increased scale of the strikes compared to last year’s attack. “This time with our allies, we have struck harder,” Mattis said. “Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack.”

Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said on Friday they tried not to hit Russian troops stationed in Syria, which might have ignited a larger conflict.

Russia has warned of “consequences” after the attacks, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the strikes “act of aggression” that could “have a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations.” Both Russia and Syria claimed on Saturday that “a significant number” of the missiles launched at Syria were shot down, although the Pentagon denies that account.

However, “Not a single one of the cruise missiles entered the zone of Russian air defense systems,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a Saturday statement. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the strikes a “crime.”

No American pilots were killed, according to the Pentagon, and as of now, the US does not know if there were any civilian casualties.

The strikes came just six days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against locals outside Damascus, killing at least 42 adults and children. Doctors and activists in Syria have circulated pictures showing men, women, and children with foam coming out of their mouths and noses, which doctors said meant they were exposed to a nerve agent.

The morning after the April 7 chemical attack, Trump said Assad and those that support him — especially Russia and Iran — would pay a “big price” for their actions. He spent the next few days discussing how to respond with his top advisers as well as foreign leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Theresa May. May has authorized strikes on Syria: “The fact of this attack should surprise no-one,” she said.

In a Monday Cabinet meeting, Trump called the chemical weapons attack “atrocious,” adding that “we cannot allow atrocities like that.” The Syrian government, for its part, denies having anything to do with the alleged chemical weapons assault.

And on Wednesday, Trump tweeted that an attack was imminent. “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” he wrote. “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

This isn’t the first time Trump has responded to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He ordered a similar strike almost exactly a year ago in response to a regime-ordered chemical weapons attack in rebel-held northern Syria. The United States shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the al-Shayrat airbase, where Assad had launched the chemical attack on April 4, 2017, that killed more than 80 people.

Still, the timing for Trump’s Syria intervention is a little surprising. Just last week, the president said he wanted to remove the approximately 2,000 US troops currently in Syria to fight ISIS.

After pushback from his advisers, he eventually agreed to allow the troops to stay, but he told members of his national security team that they had about six months to bring American forces home.

But it seems Trump reacts viscerally to chemical attacks on innocent civilians and will respond forcefully to punish Assad for using them. But it’s unclear as of now if Trump will punish the Syrian government any further — or what impact it will have now.

“Assad retains 100 percent of his mass murder delivery systems,” Fred Hof, President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, told me. “If he concludes — as he did a year ago — that all he needs to do is observe a time out on using the really strong chemical munitions, then the strikes will go down in history as empty gestures.”

How we got here

Assad is winning the war in Syria and has now turned his attention to retaking parts of the country he lost, especially the areas outside Damascus.

A central part of Assad’s strategy includes the deliberate punishment of civilian population centers in order to sap rebels and their civilian supporters of their will to fight. Jennifer Cafarella, an expert at the Institute for the Study of War, described the strategy in February to me as “siege, starve, and surrender.” Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons, which are both lethal and a brutally effective way of inducing mass panic, as part of this campaign of terror.

Assad’s strategy played out once again in Douma, a Damascus suburb, on April 7. The Syrian Air Force dropped bombs reportedly carrying toxic gas, killing over 40 people and injuring scores more. One bystander said he smelled chlorine after the attack.

Doctors and activists on the ground sent reporters, including me, pictures of the devastation. They show men, women, and children lifeless on the ground or against walls, with white foam coming out of their mouths and noses. Some of them show doctors treating patients lucky enough to survive. Videos of the carnage circulated online.

The following morning, Trump issued a warning to Assad and the countries that support his regime, including rare denunciations of Putin and Russia.

And on Sunday, Israel reportedly attacked a Syrian military base. Israel has bombed Syrian targets fairly frequently over the course of the war, usually because it’s worried about Iran’s activities in the country. The base that Israel hit, T4, had nothing do with the chemical attack in Douma — as far we know — but it is a known hub for Iranian activity.

The combination of Trump’s tweets and Israel’s forceful actions led to speculation that Trump might strike Syria again. The president’s chats with foreign leaders added to the suspicion. In a call between Trump and Macron on April 8, the two leaders both “agreed that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses.” And in a call with May on Tuesday, “The President and Prime Minister agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue,” according to a White House readout.

Trump also met with his top military officials and new National Security Adviser John Bolton throughout the week to discuss potential actions in Syria. The president promised a “major decision” over the next 24 to 48 hours and spoke passionately about the horrors of the attack. “It was atrocious. It was horrible,” Trump said. “This is about humanity, and it can’t be allowed to happen.”

But Trump became indecisive about when to strike. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that Russia should “Get ready” because missiles “will be coming” toward Syria. That afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “all options are on the table” when it came to Syria, which suggested that Trump hadn’t actually decided to use force. And on Thursday morning, Trump tweeted he “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place.”

The new strikes are meant to persuade Assad not to order more attacks like Douma. The problem is that the Syrian dictator has every incentive to keep doing so until the war is won — and to bet Trump wouldn’t be willing to actually take on his regime directly.

These strikes are about stopping chemical attacks — not the war

Friday’s strikes are the second time Trump has bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack. The first time was almost exactly a year ago, on April 6, 2017, just two days after Assad’s forces killed more than 80 people — including 16 women and 23 children — in the city of Khan Sheikhoun.

This is now a trend for Trump. When a large-scale chemical attack happens and there is immense pressure for Trump to act, the president authorizes a military response to punish Assad. But there’s a problem: These punitive strikes don’t change the course of the Syrian civil war.

First, the chemical attacks almost certainly won’t stop. Assad’s forces launched more than 200 chemical attacks since the start of the war — and continued them even after the US attack last year.

And second, the US and Western powers don’t want to wade deeper into the Syrian conflict. Trump’s justification for authorizing the strike isn’t to end the fighting, or even to slow down Assad’s killing of his country’s civilians. It’s just meant as punishment for one specific crime — the use of chemical weapons — not a broader effort aimed at striking Assad until he stops bombing Syrians or leaves power.

That means the Syrian leader will likely continue to gain power until he fully controls the country, giving Russia and Iran a major boost. Washington’s main goal is to fight ISIS in Syria, which is near defeat. That’s why Trump has put pressure on his national security team to wrap up the fighting against the terrorist group and start withdrawing America’s troops.

So, sadly, expect more death and destruction in Syria even after Friday’s punitive attack.

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