Despite rumblings of a more sustained air campaign against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the strike echoed the one-off bombardment Trump ordered one year ago. That attack also followed an alleged chemical-weapons attack, but what was meant to chasten the Assad regime and its allies at the time did nothing of the sort.
Nevertheless, Trump took to Twitter to hail the efficacy of the strikes and declare “Mission Accomplished!”
That's an unfortunate phrase for any American president with geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East, but it's particularly awkward for Trump given that little seems to have been accomplished at all. There's still uncertainty over what exactly was destroyed during this “pinprick” strike, with some reports indicating that Assad's ability to use chemical weaponry remains intact. Meanwhile, Assad's supporters partied in the streets of Damascus on Saturday, waving Syrian flags and holding up pictures of their leader.
The attack, my colleague Liz Sly wrote, was "interpreted in Syria as a win for Assad because the limited scope of the strikes suggested that Western powers do not intend to challenge his rule."
On Sunday, the Syrian military declared that it had taken full control over Eastern Ghouta. The area outside Damascus was besieged for years by the Assad regime and subject to alleged chemical-weapons attacks, including the assault this month that killed dozens of civilians and triggered U.S. action. That incident, according to reports, prompted the remaining rebels to surrender and agree to be evacuated out of the area. Regime officials crowed on Sunday that Eastern Ghouta was “completely clear of terrorism.”
Rather than Assad, it was Trump who spent the weekend on edge. He is beset by scandals and intrigue, with his personal lawyer in the crosshairs of a federal probe and embarrassing tidbits from ousted FBI director James B. Comey's new book dominating the U.S. news cycle.
The missile strike had offered Trump another moment to shift media attention and signal how he has outdone his predecessor, who chose not to directly target the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons in 2013. White House insiders told my colleagues that Trump believes Syria is in its current state because President Barack Obama didn't "enforce his red lines." He canceled a planned visit to Latin America to monitor the situation at home as the nation's commander in chief.
But then Trump spent Sunday raging against Comey, whose comments featured in all the major television morning shows. The fleeting effects of the strike — and Trump's lack of a real strategy for Syria — also exposed how thin his posturing may be, especially if Assad manages to launch a new attack using nerve gas or other illicit weapons.
“The president’s dilemma is that strength and resolve do not necessarily equal a well-thought-out Syria strategy,” my colleague Greg Jaffe explained. "If Assad ignores Friday’s relatively modest military strike and uses chemical weapons, Trump faces a difficult choice. He can escalate, pulling the U.S. military and his administration into a messy conflict that he recently said he wanted to abandon. Or he can do nothing and risk appearing weak."
Obama also faced this bind and tried to split the difference by supporting Syrian rebels with billions of dollars in arms and other assistance while keeping the U.S. military from getting too deeply involved in the conflict. But Trump moved to end support for rebels and is intent on withdrawing American troops from the country. Despite his enthusiasm for Friday's air raid, he has little apparent interest in taking ownership of the Syrian endgame.
That frustrates some other leading Republicans and helped fuel skepticism surrounding the punitive missile strike. “I fear when the dust settles, this strike will be seen as a weak military response and Assad will have paid a small price for using chemicals yet again,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Neoconservatives and hawks also placed Trump on the same continuum of American “fecklessness” supposedly exemplified by Obama. Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, argued that the United States could have smashed the “Syrian air-defense system,” taking out aircraft and bases and killing a good number of military personnel on the ground — including Russians and Iranians.
Putin “would secretly fear a president who would do that, because he knows that military humiliation has provoked the downfall of more than one Czar in the past,” Cohen wrote. "So message received: The American enemy will posture and thump his chest, but is afraid to actually stand up to you, even though his air force could blow yours out of the sky and his navy sink yours to the bottom of the sea.”
Of course, there are many other analysts — including senior military officials — who are relieved that Trump chose restraint over a potential conflagration. But the weekend's events offered yet another reminder of the limits of Washington's scope for action within the grinding misery of the Syrian war.
“We thought it would be much bigger than this,” Ahmed Primo, a journalist and activist living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, told my colleagues, referring to the strike. “Assad might have used chemical weapons this time, but he’s been indiscriminately targeting civilians for years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared. After seven years of war, we don’t believe that anyone will come to help the Syrian people anymore.”
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