President Donald Trump and the U.S. military — acting together with British and French allies — deserve credit for the aerial bombardment of three Syrian chemical warfare facilities following the latest atrocity perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Seventy-six missiles destroyed the Barzah Research and Development Center near Damascus, which U.S. military officials said would set back Syrian chemical weapons capabilities “for years.” The Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage facility outside Homs was destroyed, while a chemical weapons bunker at that complex “sustained damage.” No civilian casualties were reported.
The barrage followed an April 7 attack by the Syrian air force on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma that killed 40 using what was believed to be nerve gas.
A year earlier, Assad used sarin gas to kill nearly 100 people in the northern rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun. The images of dying children so horrified Trump he ordered a unilateral U.S. strike with 59 Tomahawk missiles on the isolated Syrian airfield used to carry out the attack.
Yet the airfield re-opened days later.
International treaties outlawed poison gas immediately after World War I, but that hasn’t stopped Assad. Human Rights Watch has identified 50 chemical weapons attacks by his regime during the Syrian civil war.
The most deadly was a 2013 sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 in Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus — a year after President Barack Obama called chemical weapons a “red line” that would prompt U.S. military action. Although military options were prepared, Obama never got congressional approval.
He pursued a diplomatic remedy instead. With the backing of Russia, which has propped up Assad, the U.N. Security Council ordered him to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy his stockpile. The U.S. removed 1,300 tons of chemical agents, but little oversight followed.
Trump rightly called out Russia for supporting Assad. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” The Russians denied Assad used chemical weapons, despite evidence collected by medical professionals.
However, Trump’s claim of “Mission Accomplished” is premature. The multifaceted civil war still rages, having claimed more than 500,000 lives and created 5.5 million refugees.
The Syrian civil war started with peaceful protests seeking greater democratic reforms during the so-called Arab Spring of March 2011. But Assad, a member of the Alawite sect — a Shi’ite minority in a predominately Sunni Muslim nation — cracked down on demonstrators. Many Sunnis in the military defected, joining protesters in the Free Syrian Army.
In 2015, with Assad on the ropes, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his military to turn the tide. Assad has allowed Putin to develop a major Mediterranean naval base at Tartus.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has 2,000 military advisers assisting Syrian Kurds in the battle against ISIS, which had established a large footprint.
That’s led to confrontations between U.S. and Russian forces, which both sides want to avoid. Indeed, the coalition attacks Friday were notable for the lack of Russian engagement.
While the Kurds helped drive ISIS out of most of Syria and Iraq, the reliance on their fighters has strained U.S. relations with Turkey, a member of the North American Treaty Organization. Turkey has fought Kurdish insurgents seeking an independent Kurdistan for the past 40 years. Its strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made recent overtures to Russia.
Iran, also a Shi’ite regime, has a vested interested in keeping Assad in power to counter Sunni Saudi Arabia. Its Lebanese-based Hezbelloh militia has supported Assad — and harassed Israel.
For his part, Trump recently surprised military leaders by stating the U.S. advisers would be leaving Syria, claiming ISIS has been defeated. But ISIS still retains pockets of territory along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq. Withdrawing troops could create the same vacuum that occurred in Iraq when the U.S. pulled out. Counting on the Saudis to replace the U.S. presence is problematic.
However, linking Trump’s call for a withdrawal with emboldening Assad to use chemical weapons on Douma is wrongheaded. Assad’s fellow Alawites had become angered the rebels reportedly held 7,500 members of their sect prisoners with Assad doing little to free them, but seeking more Alawite recruits.
His attack on Douma came after an ultimatum to the rebels to release all prisoners or face the consequences. After the chemical attack, 200 prisoners were released in negotiations for Douma’s surrender. The regime claimed the 7,500 prisoners was “fake news” perpetrated by the rebels.
Trump made the right call by coordinating surgical strikes on chemical weapons sites with U.S. allies. But as former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack told the Washington Post, the allure of the strikes are they are “feel-good military operations,” making the American public think we’ve have done something to help Syrians — when 500,000 have died and thousands more will.