The Trump administration’s strike on one of Bashar al-Assad’s air bases was similar in style and objectives to the strike plan that President Barack Obama prepared in 2013 — except that Obama’s attacks were to be several times bigger than President Trump’s. At the time, leading Republicans mocked the Obama administration for what it called “pinprick” strikes, calling them ineffective. Today they praise Trump’s smaller strikes as perfectly calculated.
“What we had in mind in 2013 had many more targets and was much more expansive,” a senior Obama administration official involved in those discussions told me.
On Thursday, Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base, the origin of Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack that killed scores of Syrian civilians in Idlib. Trump explained in a letter to Congress Saturday that his strike was meant “to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks” and dissuade Assad from using chemicals again.
Like Trump, the Obama team was not trying to topple the Assad regime and was not intending to address Assad’s use of conventional weapons to kill civilians. But the Obama plan was designed to be substantial enough to have an impact on Assad’s calculus. There were also plans to follow up with strikes on even more targets if Assad continued to use chemical weapons.
“The military planners thought that the attack we had planned in 2013 was significant enough to have a real deterrent effect,” the official said. “We had a strike plan that included additional targets that would not have been struck in the initial go around.”
The senior Obama administration official noted that more expansive attacks on more Syrian air bases are more difficult now than they were in 2013, because each Syrian base now has a Russian troop presence.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who saw Obama’s plans at the time, told me that Obama’s plan was to strike six different Assad military installations, whereas Trump’s only involved one. But Graham noted that Obama changed his mind at the last minute and ended up not striking Syria at all.
“This is better than doing nothing. This is a step in the right direction,” Graham said. “Does it change their behavior? We don’t know yet if this attack will work or not.”
A senior National Security Council official pushed back on the notion that Trump’s strikes were weaker than Obama’s and that they would be too small to change Assad’s calculus about using chemical weapons.
“This is different chemical weapons attack and a different president, and the difference is that this president took action,” the official said. “It’s more likely to change Assad’s behavior than no action on the part of President Obama.”
Several of the leading Republicans who praised Trump’s Syria strike had previously said that Obama’s 2013 plan would have been too insignificant to matter. Their criticism was in response to then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry promising that the strikes would be “unbelievably small,” and would not lead to a larger U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2013 that Obama’s proposed strikes were “like a pinprick” and wouldn’t have “any great consequence.” On Friday, McConnell said Trump’s strike was “was certainly more than a pinprick.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized Obama’s proposed Syria strike plan during his presidential primary campaign. “The United States military was not built to conduct pinprick attacks,” he said in late 2015. After Trump’s strike last week, he said they had “achieved a clear military objective,” which he said was to destroy or “significantly degrade” one of Assad’s airfields.
So far, Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons does not seem significantly degraded. On Saturday, the Assad regime resumed flying missions from the Shayrat air base and U.S. officials have said that the chemical weapons stockpile there was intentionally left unharmed. There are also reportedly other Syrian government bases that still have chemical weapons stores.
In a tweet Saturday, Trump defended the U.S. decision not to cripple the air base by bombing the runways by saying it was not worth doing because runways are easy to repair.
Whether Assad is deterred from using chemical weapons going forward remains to be seen. On the same day Trump struck Assad’s air base, there were several reports that the regime used bombs filled with chlorine, another chemical weapon, to kill civilians in the city of Hama.
Most national security minded Democrats, even top Obama administration officials, are supporting Trump’s decision to strike Assad and say it sends a clear message about the United States’ willingness to stand up for the principle that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated. Still, they and hawkish Republicans are urging the Trump administration to do more.
“The real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next,” former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken wrote in the New York Times. “Now, the administration has leverage it should test with the Assad regime and Russia to restrain Syria’s air force, stop any use of chemical or biological weapons, implement an effective cease-fire in Syria’s civil war and even move toward a negotiated transition of power — goals that eluded the Obama administration.”
Trump administration officials have said they are “ready to do more.” And if Assad does use chemical weapons again, there are already plans they can use — the ones Obama and his team drew up and that Republicans criticized years ago.