Former top US officials are uncertain whether the Syria strikes will achieve their intended goal, to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. But the attacks sent some key additional messages.
The Trump administration made clear that attacks against Syria’s chemical weapons program had one purpose: to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using such weapons again in future as he had done, the United States and others said, recently in the city of Douma.
Friday night’s strike came one year after the US hit the Assad regime in similar fashion after Damascus had allegedly carried out a deadly chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. This time, however, the US was not acting alone, and it, along with France and the UK, conducted significantly more strikes than a year ago.
Read more: Airstrikes in Syria: What you need to know
The fresh US-led action, described as a one-off attack, capped a tumultuous lead-up that started, as has become routine in Washington, with a presidential tweet. In it, Trump promised swift and tough US military action, denounced Assad and taunted Russia and Iran. The tweet triggered international alarm about an imminent attack in one of the world’s most volatile regions, and left US officials scrambling for answers.
When the attack came — days after Trump’s initial timeline — it was in concert with two allies and clearly limited in scope to a narrow set of targets. To many observers, the military action looked more like a restrained response than a broader one initially forecast by Trump. That’s led to several questions:
Will Assad still get the message and stop using chemical weapons?
“I am underwhelmed,” said Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, who also served as Washington’s envoy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We basically did the same thing we did a year ago on a slightly larger scale. But it is not going to do any lasting damage to Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future or anything else.”
“Will this deter him — that’s a question that remains open,” said Philip Breedlove, the former NATO and US military commander in Europe. “Remember that this criminal, this monster leader of Syria, enjoys the support and the enabling capabilities and the exterior political support of Russia and Iran.”
While it’s difficult to predict Assad’s response, to change his calculus would probably require action that threatened the very foundation of his regime, said Mona Yacoubian, a Syria scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. “In that sense, these strikes were probably too limited to do that.”
All three experts highlighted the influence of Russia and Iran on the Assad regime.
“Remember that Mr. Assad by himself is not capable of all these things that are going on around him,” said Breedlove. “He is enabled, empowered and encouraged by Russia and Iran.”
“If they say don’t do this again, he probably won’t do it again,” agreed Crocker, referring to Moscow and Tehran’s sway over Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“I would look at Iran particularly,” the former US diplomat said, adding, “I can’t believe the Iranians are just fine with this. They suffered a great deal from chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war. They know what it’s like.”
Russia, said Yacoubian, despite some bellicose rhetoric, also could have no interest in escalating a conflict with the US over Syria and might be inclined to clamp down on Assad’s use of chemical weapons for its own reasons.
While Crocker supported Washington’s decision to not strike Syria alone this time, he said the lack of participation of any other nations aside from Britain and France sent a bad signal to Arab countries in light of next year’s 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I. “No one in the West will tweet to this, everybody in the Middle East will because the British and the French, of course, were the ones who divided up the Ottoman Middle Eastern territories.”
The former US diplomat also expressed his astonishment about the timing of Berlin’s announcement not to participate in a military strike against Syria.
“I found it more than a little sad and disturbing that Germany chose International Holocaust Remembrance Day to make a public statement that under no circumstances whatsoever would Germany participate in a strike on a chemical weapons facility,” said Crocker.
What do the strikes tell us about the Trump administration?
Asked whether the US response could be read as a sign that the Pentagon, which under Defense Secretary James Mattis had advocated for a careful and coordinated response, had prevailed over the White House’s initial call for swift action, the experts rejected such an interpretation as going too far.
Still, the nature and the execution of the attack prove that Mattis plays an important role right now, said Crocker. “Pretty clearly he is able to calm the president down,” he said. “Not many people can do that.”
Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war
Former NATO Commander Breedlove, who declined to engage in politics, praised Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
“What you have seen here is that these two incredible military leaders have given their boss, the commander-in-chief, their advice, and the commander-in-chief made the decision based on that advice. Frankly, I think they got it right.”
Experts have wondered whether Trump will continue to heed the counsel of his military leaders, particularly with the ascent of the hardline John Bolton as national security adviser.
Similarly interesting will be whether Trump’s newly formed team of Pentagon chief Mattis, Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who appears likely to be confirmed as the new secretary of state, will address what Crocker, the former Syria ambassador, calls the administration’s underlying problem.
“There still is no Syria strategy in Washington.”