Deliberations over how and when to impose punishment for the latest apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria have overshadowed a deeper internal debate over the Trump administration’s overall goals there, and whether a U.S. military strike would add to or subtract from their potential for success.
Some officials and experts on the region believe that a purely punitive American airstrike on Syrian military targets, similar to one launched by President Trump a year ago this month, would risk a broader confrontation with Russia and Iran while having little to no effect on stated U.S. objectives in Syria itself.
Others argue that punishing what Trump has called the “heinous” use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people is reason enough, and would send a valuable message to Assad, as well as to his partners in Moscow and Tehran, that they must de-escalate the destructive civil war.
“Everybody’s gonna pay a price,” Trump said Monday, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He will, everybody will.”
Still others maintain that Trump has no authority to decide unilaterally to impose any punishment at all on Syria.
“He’s a president, not a king, and Congress needs to quit giving him a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement Tuesday. “If he strikes Syria without our approval, what will stop him from bombing North Korea or Iran?”
But whatever response it ultimately adopts, the administration still appears to lack an agreed or viable strategy for achieving what it has repeatedly said are its dual aims in Syria — the final defeat of the Islamic State, and the establishment of a politically stable government that will keep the militants from finding fertile ground there in the future.
Trump’s insistence last week that U.S. troops should come home from Syria as soon as the first objective is achieved appeared to contradict the understanding of both military and diplomatic officials charged with carrying out U.S. policy.
As described earlier this year by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, “what we are going to do is to hold that territory” that has been seized from the militants, “and get it back in local leaders’ hands.” The idea, he said, was to use the “Geneva process” — the years-long U.N.-led effort to forge a political solution to Syria’s civil war — “to come up with a post-conflict map and post-conflict plan for the way ahead, and assure that ISIS 2.0 doesn’t rise in the middle of that and derail everything we’ve fought for, and many people have paid the price on this thing.”
“We don’t simply up and leave . . . the diplomats without a leg to stand on against people who have no diplomatic inclination,” Mattis said.
One problem is that the Geneva process, begun in 2012, when there appeared a very real possibility that Assad would lose the war against rebels backed by the United States and regional partners, has been largely moribund.
With Iran as a longtime ally, and Russia using its air and logistics power to aid him since the fall of 2015, Assad now has the upper hand, and there are few organized, non-extremist rebels with whom to negotiate. Last weekend’s apparent chemical weapons strike, on the town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, succeeded in provoking the withdrawal of remaining rebels from one of the last urban areas they held.
Jane’s IHS Markit Conflict Monitor on Tuesday assessed that Assad’s use of a chemical agent in Douma “was motivated by a desire to test and ultimately discredit U.S. deterrence in the Syrian arena, as well as to speed up the government takeover of the remaining insurgent-held areas.”
While Geneva — which calls for the installation of a transitional government, the writing of a new constitution, and ultimately democratic elections — has foundered, Russia, Iran and Turkey have started their own peace process for Syria, which would be likely to keep Assad in power.
Last month, nearly seven years after then-President Barack Obama first declared that Assad must go, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that he did not know whether that objective remained U.S. policy.
“Well, if you don’t know, I doubt if anybody knows, because this is your job, to take care of this part of the world,” replied Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
The administration has indicated that ousting Assad is no longer a specific goal but has said that it cannot envision political stability as long as he remains, and that the international reconstruction funds that Syria will need if the war ever ends will not be forthcoming if he remains in power.
Some experts believe that whether Assad stays should be of little concern to the United States, a view that Trump at times has indicated he shares. “I don’t think our strategy would presume a political settlement,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policies at the Heritage Foundation. “Our strategy is about keeping the problems of Syria from bleeding out elsewhere. . . . If the [Syrian] conflict just stayed where it was, all of America’s interests would be satisfied.”
“There’s a big difference between a stated policy goal and an attainable strategic objective,” he said. “We should never accept the regime of Assad. He’s a genocidal war-crime leader. Having said that, it would be ridiculous for us to fight World War III to take Assad out of power.”
Officials say that Mattis’s national defense strategy, which identifies Russia as among the chief threats at a moment when the United States is looking to transition away from the insurgent conflicts of the past 17 years, has provided clarity about the Trump-era Pentagon’s top priorities. At the same time, they acknowledge that containing Moscow’s greatly expanded influence in Syria, along with Tehran’s, does not fall within their mission there. “It’s our problem, but not our solution” to develop, a defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue frankly.
Carafano and other national security experts said it was assumed that, should Trump decide to strike Syrian military installations, the United States would inform Russia in time for it to clear its own personnel out of targeted areas. This was the case in the last U.S. attack against Syria, which followed a deadly sarin gas attack in the country’s northwest.
Although defense officials declined to say whether an attack on Syria was imminent, officials have been updating earlier attack plans in keeping with Trump’s desire to punish Assad for the recent use of chemical agents.
The significance and effects of the 2017 U.S. strike — a volley of cruise missiles launched against air defenses, aircraft, fuel and hangars at an isolated military facility, quickly faded as Assad, according to assessments by U.S. officials, has continued to produce and employ chemical agents. While several incidents last winter were reported as chlorine gas attacks, U.S. officials suggested in February that there had been at least one credible report of sarin use. Various reports of the recent alleged attack, in which at least 49 people were reported killed and many more injured, said the substance used was chlorine or a mixture of chlorine and an unspecified nerve agent.
If the administration does embrace a more expansive response, it could risk stumbling into a new Syria strategy — a de facto policy of open conflict with Assad and his backers. Faysal Itani, a scholar at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, said unintended escalation could lead the United States into a situation that two administrations have sought up to now to avoid. “It’s the ultimate slippery slope,” Itani said. “We can’t go there unless we go there by accident.”
According to one former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning, the operation conducted in April 2017 was among the most limited responses considered by senior officials. Another option, backed by some officials who favored a more expansive action, would have targeted Syria’s command and control and air capability by hitting four air bases. The prospect of a larger retaliation worried Pentagon leaders who feared unwanted consequences in a theater crowded by major military powers.
The divisiveness of any expanded military action in Syria was evident once more this spring when Trump requested options for retaliating against ongoing chemical attacks in Syria, including an apparent chlorine gas attack that took place on Feb. 25. According to a senior official, Mattis argued against taking action at that time.