The US just bombed Syria for the second time, but the strike is mostly interesting for what didn’t happen.
The American warplanes didn’t target Bashar al-Assad or his government. They didn’t hammer suspected chemical weapons stockpiles. And they didn’t try to make any kind of major dent in Assad’s ability to continue slaughtering his own people.
Instead, the US shot the vehicles of Syrian government forces and a regime-allied militia near a base called At Tanf, where US and UK special forces are training Syrian rebels to fight against the Assad regime.
The strike raises new questions about how the Trump administration plans to handle the grinding civil war in Syria.
On April 6, Trump ordered the US Navy to fire 59 missiles at a base Assad used to launch a chemical attack that killed 72 people. The administration indicated at the time that the US was prepared to keep using force if Assad used chemical weapons again, but the administration hasn’t spelled out a broader strategy for how to wind down the conflict — and has even stumbled over the basic but vital question of whether Trump believes Assad must go.
It also provides the latest illustration about an important, if little-noticed, part of Trump’s relationship with the military: his willingness to delegate key decisions to the battlefield commanders without requiring the Pentagon to first get his sign-off.
Many military officials applaud the change because they felt micromanaged by the Obama White House. Still, it has a few risks, especially if military commanders take tactical decisions that do not fit within the administration’s goals.
With the new strikes, Trump is again testing the limits of how much leeway the Pentagon should be given in countries as complex as Syria.
The new US strikes don't mean war
The new strikes occurred after the US was unable to prevent Assad’s vehicles from approaching At Tanf, where the US and UK are training rebels to fight Assad. The area around the base is a so-called “deconfliction zone,” a place in Syria where the United States and Russia have mutually agreed to communicate so their aircrews can operate safely.
The United States and Russia appear to have both been monitoring the vehicles. When they didn’t turn around, a US commander ordered the airstrikes.
So while the strike may have been limited, it was a strike all the same — and that marks a sharp change from the Obama years. Fred Hof, formerly a top Obama administration Syria official, said in an interview that Russian planes bombed US-trained rebels in the same area last summer, but the US did nothing in response.
“Apparently the Trump administration is not inclined to abandon American-trained Syrian forces,” Hof said
Trump bombed Syria once before. It didn’t change much.
This is now the second time the Trump administration struck Assad regime forces. The first time was in response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in northern, rebel-held Syria. The United States shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the al-Shayrat airbase where Assad had launched the chemical attack that killed 72 people.
The reason for these newest strikes is still a bit sketchy, but a few possibilities pop out.
It looks like the vehicles were doing something they were not supposed to do by driving so close to the At Tanf base.
Interestingly, the United States and Russia coordinated plans to get the vehicles to leave the area, including firing warning shots. Those warning shots didn’t work, so therefore they fired shots at the Assad-linked vehicles.
And it’s worth nothing that At Tanf is located very, very near Jordan on Syria’s southern border. Jordan is a vital US ally and has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS. That Assad’s forces were getting dangerously close to Jordan, and the base itself, was a nonstarter for the United States.
The strike will now add even more intrigue to Trump’s international trip to the Middle East, where he already will have a tense meeting with Israeli leadership after he provided sensitive intelligence to the Russians given to the United States by an Israeli spy.
Still, after striking Syria twice, expect calls for the Trump administration to define a Syria strategy. After the first strikes back in April, there were bipartisan pleas for the administration to lay out its goals in Syria.
It hasn’t yet. And the new strikes make it even more important that the White House does so, and that it does so soon.