Less than two weeks ago, President Trump promised to withdraw from Syria. Then, 10 days later, he opened a new front against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad that risks drawing the United States into a broader conflict there.
The administration calculated that the need to send a signal to Assad over chemical weapons outweighed the possibility of provoking a response from his allies, Russia and Iran, on the battlefield in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East or even in cyberspace.
The risk, analysts say, is that the United States would then end up in a cycle of escalation that entangles the American military more deeply in the Syrian conflict than the administration intended.
“Given the linkage between Russia, Iran and Assad, an attack that we would consider limited and precise might be misconstrued by one or more of those three parties and justify from their perspective a retaliatory strike,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. “Then what do we do?”
Possible scenarios for retaliation include attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. forces in the Middle East, stepped-up incidents against U.S. forces and their allies within Syria or “asymmetric responses” such as cyberattacks entirely outside the theater itself.
It remains unclear whether the strike will prevent Assad’s forces from turning to chemical weapons in the future as the leader seeks to extend his reach across the country while consolidating gains in the civil war.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University, said military action would deter Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons only if the United States conducts follow-up strikes when new atrocities occur.
“I don’t think, in order to make the deterrent stick, that this can be the last attack,” Ford said. The former U.S. diplomat, who said Assad’s forces were using chemical weapons in part because they lack manpower, predicted that the Syrian leader “will test us — and we will have to do this again.”
Trump promised the strikes would not necessarily be a one-off. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the president said in an address at the White House late Friday night.
Some who support the strikes say that even if they fail to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, they will send the message that the international community is watching and intends to enforce the ban on chemical weapons that countries instituted after World War I.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the strikes, in which the United Kingdom and France participated, would “send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.” Referring to last month’s nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England, she said, “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized — within Syria, on the streets of the U.K. or anywhere else in our world.”
The military intervention also comes as Washington has all but given up on seeking the removal of Assad more than seven years into Syria’s civil war. Trump wants the Pentagon to withdraw U.S. troops after the Kurdish-led militia that Washington is backing in Syria finishes off the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group.
The departure of U.S. troops, military strategists say, will probably pave the way for Assad’s consolidation of control in the country, backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
The result is what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described in congressional testimony on Thursday as “contrary impulses.” On the one hand, Trump wants the United States to have nothing to do with Syria. On the other, he wants to dictate norms of behavior on Syria’s battlefield that upset him when violated.
Those who take a dim view of selective strikes in response to chemical weapons usage say the United States has given up trying to ensure the departure of Assad, which means his forces will continue to kill whomever they wish as they consolidate control, even if they do so with conventional weapons.
“As long as you have a strategy that leaves Assad in place and allows him to slaughter his people as he sees fit, he is going to do so,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “And he is probably going to use chemical warfare agents.”
For Washington to stop Assad from killing his own citizens more broadly, “we’re getting closer to a regime-change scenario because he’s bombing almost every day,” said Ford, the former U.S. ambassador. “To me, that’s drawing us in. I have zero confidence that we could control where that goes then.”
Pollack suspects that the Syrian regime and Iran will not retaliate against the United States because they are ascendant on a battlefield that Trump has promised to leave, and they will not want to engage in any action that could prevent a U.S. departure that would amount to a big win for them.
Russia could have more of a motive to retaliate, Pollack said, even though before last year’s attack on Assad’s airfield, U.S. forces warned Russia in advance.
“Russia is the wild card out there,” Pollack said, because President Vladimir Putin’s interests are bigger than Syria. “They are about how much [the United States is] allowed to act unrestrained and how much does he want to demonstrate that he can fight back.”
The strike also raises thorny questions for Trump administration officials about why they are willing to intervene when Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians but will not act in instances where his forces are killing far more with conventional weapons.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Mattis suggested that chemical weapons differ from conventional arms in their barbarism.
“Some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just the Chemical Weapons Convention, but of civilization itself,” Mattis said, explaining why the Trump administration decided to strike last year.
For some political scientists, that logic represents a slippery slope, where the United States is compelled into military action on humanitarian grounds only depending on the type of killing that is occurring.
“How horrific is it that we are particularly disturbed by one way of killing Syrian children but not the other?” asked Mara Karlin, a former top Pentagon official during the Obama administration and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The allure of such strikes, Pollack said, is they are “feel-good military operations” that make the American public think they have done something to help Syrians.
“No, we didn’t,” Pollack said. “Five hundred thousand of them have died, and we’ve done nothing.”