President Trump declared victory Saturday in the largest application of military force he has ordered, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations vowed that the United States is ready to launch another strike if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons in the future.
“Mission Accomplished!” Trump tweeted a day after the allied assault on Syrian facilities that the United States, Britain and France say are part of a large chemical weapons program. The phrase was the same one the last Republican president, George W. Bush, employed to his regret in 2003, when the Iraq War was far from over.
“I spoke to the president this morning, and he said, ‘If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,’ ” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said at an emergency Security Council meeting called by Russia, the Syrian government’s most powerful ally.
“When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line,” she added.
At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the director of the Joint Staff, said the United States, France and Britain fired more than 100 missiles, delivering a blow to the “heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons network. He acknowledged, however, that Syria retains “residual” capacity, but he gave no details about what could be left.
Although the attack may send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about future chemical use, it is unlikely to bring the wider Syrian conflict, which has killed upward of half a million people since 2011 and destabilized the region, closer to an end.
For the time being, relief reigned as the West and most of its allies expressed support for action to curtail the threat of Syria’s chemical warfare as backers of the Syrian government expressed outrage at what they considered an illegal aggression against Syria’s sovereignty.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the strikes would have “a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations.”
In the end, Russia’s plea for condemnation of the strikes as a violation of international law and the U.N. Charter failed in a vote among the 15 Security Council members, with only Bolivia and China joining Russia.
The town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical attack last weekend, was among a dwindling number of rebel-held areas as Assad expands his control. Russian military assistance since 2015 has allowed Assad to break a stalemate with the rebels, some of whom are backed by the United States.
Faysal Itani, a scholar at the Atlantic Council, said that even if the U.S.-led strikes prevented new chemical attacks, they would not change Assad’s larger strategy or halt his ongoing conventional assaults on rebel-held areas.
“If anything, the opposite is true: By setting these red lines and devising very narrow punishments for violating them, we essentially communicate to the regime what our priorities are and also our threshold for risk and level of interest in the broader Syrian war,” Itani said. “Just as it did with the war on ISIS, the U.S. has compartmentalized the [chemical weapons] issue and isolated it from the broader Syrian conflict. So Assad will logically see he has a green light to continue to destroy the opposition,” he added, referring to the Islamic State.
The Pentagon said more than 40 Syrian surface-to-air missiles had “no material effect” on the allied strikes, which McKenzie said hit their targets. None of the more sophisticated air defenses that Russia has positioned in Syria were employed, he said.
Pentagon officials said none of the 105 allied missiles fired were hit by Syria’s Soviet-era antimissile fire.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under briefing rules, said it appeared that nearly all the Syrian surface-to-air defenses were fired after the allied missiles hit their targets.
McKenzie described one site, the Barzah Research and Development Center, near Damascus, as a “core” facility for Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“They lost a lot of equipment. They lost a lot of material, and that’s going to have a significant effect,” he said.
The Pentagon said the strikes resulted in few, if any, casualties.
Syria disputed even the most basic facts about the assault. Bashar Jaafari, the nation’s U.N. ambassador, told the Security Council that 110 missiles came at Syria, but that 100 were shot down. He said three civilians were injured during a strike at one site. U.S. officials said no one was hurt there.
In the wake of last weekend’s attack, some U.S. officials advocated a larger strike than the limited action Trump ordered in April 2017, also in response to suspected chemical weapons use.
That attack involved 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea. It fulfilled Trump’s vow that chemical weapons are a “red line” that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, would not allow Assad to cross. But the airfield targeted by the Pentagon resumed operations shortly after the attack and, according to Western intelligence assessments, chemical attacks resumed.
Since last year’s strike, multiple chemical attacks have been reported in opposition areas, most of them involving chlorine rather than the nerve agent sarin, as was used in 2017, suggesting that the government may have adjusted its tactics.
Inspectors from the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were expected to make their initial visit to Douma on Saturday. They will collect soil samples and talk to witnesses to try to pin down what occurred.
The United States, France and Britain said they have proof, without identifying it, that chlorine gas caused victims to suffocate.
Another U.S. official, also briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Western nations strongly suspect that sarin gas was also used.
Britain and France hope that their participation in the strikes will go some distance in convincing Trump they are strong and dependable allies, and provide some leverage when the president decides next month whether the United States will remain part of the Iran nuclear deal. The subject will be at the top of the agenda when French President Emmanuel Macron comes to Washington for a state visit in late April.
Britain and France, along with Germany, have spent months negotiating with the State Department ways to satisfy Trump’s insistence on “fixes” to the deal’s sunset and verification provisions, and discussing its failure to address Iran’s development and testing of ballistic missiles. Although the three European signatories have said that no changes can be made to the agreement itself, they think they and the United States are close to finishing a declaration outlining their joint positions on the matters.
The question is whether Trump is looking for a way to keep the deal, or if he and his two new hard-line aides — national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo, both of whom have advocated trashing it — are not interested in an agreement that would keep it alive.
Karen DeYoung, Brian Murphy and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.