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The US just bombed Syria. What happens next?

Trump’s Syrian airstrike could escalate dangerously.

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Syria bombing: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis briefs the press after the raids on Friday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The US military bombed Syria on Friday evening in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last week that killed a number of innocent civilians, including children. American forces, together with British and French allies, bombed three targets in Syria — each of which was related to Syria’s chemical weapons program. No American pilots were killed, according to the Pentagon; the number of Syrian and other casualties is not yet known.

The strikes, Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a late-Friday press conference, were not the opening of a broader campaign. “Right now, this is a one-time shot ... designed to set back the Syrian war machine’s ability to produce chemical weapons,” Mattis said.

But that doesn’t mean these strikes aren’t without risk — far from it.

The logic behind this attack is to show that the United States is committed to retaliatory strikes any time the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons. Friday’s strikes are an announcement that US policy is open-ended bombing of Assad’s forces unless and until he stops using his chemical weapons.

And that creates a serious risk of escalation and deeper US involvement in one of the world’s deadliest and most dangerous civil wars.

The US bombings in Syria: the real risk

Let’s be clear: These limited strikes almost certainly did not destroy the Syrian government’s entire chemical weapons stockpile, let alone seriously set back its ability to fight anti-government rebels.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford seemed to admit as much at the same Friday press conference, saying there were “other targets” they could have hit related to the chemical weapons program, but that they chose not to because of a high risk of civilian casualties.

In other words, this was a symbolic strike, designed to signal loud and clear to the Syrian government that the use of chemical weapons would provoke American retaliation, thus hopefully deterring Assad from doing so again.

One can’t help but feel a little bit of déjà vu. Almost exactly one year ago, the Assad regime used chemical weapons on a civilian population center, killing more than 80 people. This prompted Trump to launch limited airstrikes, that time on a Syrian airbase. Again, the idea was to show Assad that the US would not tolerate such actions and thus deter him from ever doing so again.

Clearly, that failed.

So what happens if these strikes fail to deter Assad yet again?

This is the fundamental risk inherent in the “limited strikes” strategy Trump appears to have settled on. True, each individual strike to date has been limited and low risk. But the escalation dynamic is entirely in Assad’s control: If he wants to use more chemical weapons, the US will either have to respond yet again or be seen as giving Assad (and other dictators) a green light to use chemical weapons on their own people.

The US policy is now to bomb Assad any time he launches a mass-casualty chemical attack.

And it’s not like chemical weapons are completely unheard of in Syria: Assad’s forces have used them more than 200 times since the beginning of the civil war, according to a tally by chemical weapons expert Rebecca Hersman. They’re an effective weapon of terror, one that fits horrifically well with the Assad regime’s strategy of crushing the rebels and their civilian supporters’ will to fight.

And every time the US hits a Syrian target, there’s always a risk that something goes wrong: A US warplane is shot down; the US accidentally hits a civilian target or accidentally kills a Russian or Iranian-backed fighter — prompting one or both of those countries to retaliate against the United States.

War is always unpredictable and dangerous; the war in Syria, which involves a number of regional powers and two nuclear-armed states, is exponentially more so. Indeed, Russia is already warning that Friday’s bombing raid “will not be met without consequences,” per a BBC report.

At the Friday night briefing, Defense Secretary Mattis insisted that this attack — because it was bigger than last year’s — would be sufficient to deter Assad from further chemical use. “The Assad regime didn’t get the message last year. This year, we and our allies have struck harder,” he said.

But neither he nor anyone else knows this to be true. He admitted as much, saying that “should [Assad] decide to use more chemical weapons in the future,” the US would be willing to go back into Syria. And every time it does so, the risk of some kind of disaster grows.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Gen. Dunford’s first name.