On Friday night, the US, France, and the UK bombed Syria in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 people. But in the aftermath of the US-led strikes, it’s clear that the drama surrounding the civil war is far from over.
Syrians loyal to the president, Bashar al-Assad, openly celebrated in the capital of Damascus on Saturday because the Western powers didn’t try to overthrow Assad. On Sunday, Assad’s forces continued to bomb civilians — but with conventional weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron told French media outlets on Sunday that he convinced US President Donald Trump to keep US troops in Syria, even though the president previously said he wanted to bring them home. And finally, Turkey, a NATO ally, said on Monday that it doesn’t side with the US — or any other country, for that matter — on Syria.
So even though Trump tweeted “Mission Accomplished!” after attacking Syria, the aftermath shows there is much work left to do. What follows is a quick guide to the biggest developments following Friday night’s strikes.
Assad still walks to work
The Friday attack on Syria targeted three of Assad’s key chemical weapons facilities, including one near Damascus. But crucially, the strikes didn’t threaten the survival of the Assad regime — and that made the government’s supporters happy.
According to the Washington Post, locals celebrated in the capital after realizing there would be no more US-led strikes. Assad supporters reportedly danced to nationalist songs while waving the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian flags in unison. Recall that Moscow and Tehran are Assad’s biggest backers in the Syrian civil war.
The Assad regime even joined in on the defiance. “The honorable cannot be humiliated,” Assad’s office tweeted after Friday’s strikes. And on April 14, the same account tweeted a short video of Assad walking to work with a briefcase to emphasize how little the strikes had truly changed.
صباح الصمود..— Syrian Presidency (@Presidency_Sy) April 14, 2018
رئاسة الجمهورية العربية السورية pic.twitter.com/hhIZT6cOTe
As Trump has said repeatedly, the US won’t get meaningfully involved in the Syrian civil war, a conflict Assad has all but won. But the US and its allies seem to be willing to punish the regime for using chemical weapons on civilians, without actually threatening Assad’s position.
In other words, the US won’t stop the regime’s loyalists from cheering for now and won’t stop Assad from walking to his office unharmed.
The war in Syria continues
The US and its allies may have destroyed important chemical facilities, but Assad still has regular bombs and attack helicopters, and his forces used them soon after the US-led strike.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Assad’s forces bombed civilian areas on Sunday, conducting at least 28 airstrikes near Homs and Hama. Regime troops also launched artillery, according to the White Helmets rescue group.
Sadly, that’s not new or substantially different in the Syria conflict. Assad uses conventional means to kill most of his own people. As the Journal notes, only around 2,000 of the roughly 400,000 killed in Syria since 2011 died from chemical weapons. That means the vast majority, about 398,000, died because Assad’s forces hit them with airstrikes, bullets, or something else.
This is all part of Assad’s “siege, starve, and surrender” strategy, in which he uses brutal military force to both kill civilians and make it hard for them to receive food and medical attention. That way, anti-government rebels will eventually put down their arms, allowing Assad’s forces to reclaim lost territory.
This goes to the heart of Trump’s Syria policy: The US seems to tolerate Assad murdering his own people as long as he doesn’t use chemical weapons. Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace pushed UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on this:
WALLACE: Why are we drawing a distinction and saying to Assad, it’s okay to do it with conventional weapons but we’re going to object if you do it with chemical weapons?
HALEY: I don’t think we’ve ever said it’s okay, period. There is no way that any American or the president would ever say it’s okay to kill women and children.
I think that we have a lot of issues in the world, and I think we’re trying to put out as many fires as we can. We can’t control what a country does to its people. We can condemn it; we can acknowledge it. We can try to do everything at the United Nations.
There you have it: Chemical weapons? Limited strikes as punishment. Regular bombs and artillery? “We can condemn it; we can acknowledge it.”
Still, we don’t really know why the Trump administration feels more compelled to act when Assad’s forces use chemical weapons than when it uses conventional ones.
Will Trump keep troops in Syria?
In the aftermath of the strikes, Trump may be reconsidering the US’s commitment in Syria — again.
On April 3, Trump told reporters during a White House press conference that he wanted to remove US troops from Syria: “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.” But Macron, the French leader, said on Sunday that he changed the president’s mind.
“Ten days ago, President Trump said the USA’s will is to disengage from Syria. We convinced him that it was necessary to stay,” Macron told French news outlets on Sunday.
That’s a big claim. Not only had Trump already said America’s roughly 2,000 troops in Syria should leave, but keeping US troops there would go against Trump’s own America First instincts. One of the core tenets of America First is not to spend excess blood and treasure in foreign wars, letting regional countries solve their own problems.
That said, Trump did agree on April 4 to keep US service members in Syria over the next six months to defeat ISIS, which is the only stated reason for why the US has a military presence in Syria at all.
The White House says Macron didn’t misrepresent his conversation with Trump but added that nothing has changed. “The US mission has not changed — the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement to reporters. “We are determined to completely crush ISIS and create the conditions that will prevent its return.”
It’s now an open question as to how long US troops will stay in Syria after ISIS’s ouster.
A NATO ally isn’t on America’s side in Syria
Turkey is one of America’s NATO allies, but the US can’t count on Ankara’s support in Syria. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag just made that clear.
“Turkey’s Syria policy isn’t to stand with or against any country,” he told reporters in Qatar on Monday. “There is no change to the policy Turkey has been carrying out.”
Here’s what he means: Turkey’s goal is to establish an approximately 19-mile “safe zone” between Kurdish-controlled territory and the Turkish border. Turkey now fights Syrian Kurds in the country’s north to do so. Ankara has been fighting a decades-long insurgency against Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, and thus considers the powerful Kurdish forces near its Syrian border to be a looming terrorist threat to the country.
This complicates another of America’s most important alliances in the Middle East. The US is also close to the Syrian Kurds, who have emerged as one of Washington’s vital battlefield partners in the anti-ISIS fight. Last October, Syrian Kurdish fighters helped the US take Raqqa, the Syrian city that ISIS considered the capital of its so-called caliphate.
Turkey, then, is fighting one of America’s key allies countering ISIS. It’s no wonder that Bozdag feels Turkey and the US aren’t on the same page.
But what is jarring is that a top Turkish official would say this just days after the US attacked the Syrian regime. Further, by effectively staying neutral, Ankara is allowing Russia and Iran to actively back Assad while he uses chemical weapons on innocent civilians.
Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a great surprise. On April 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with two other leaders — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — in Turkey for talks about Syria’s future. Notably, the US didn’t attend the summit.
It’s hard to believe two NATO allies are this far apart on a crucial national security issue. But here we are.