The United States,together with its allies the United Kingdom and France, struck the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with a massive air and missile strike in retaliation for an on April 7 chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma.
The massive one-off allied air strike was aimed at degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal while simultaneously avoiding collateral damage to civilians as well as Russian and Iranian forces that are also operating inside Syria. The Pentagon took pains to avoid targeting Russian forces inside Syria because of the danger of escalation into open warfare with a rival nuclear-armed great power.
Trump’s Case for Intervention
U.S. President Donald Trump told the nation that he ordered the attack because of Douma and what he called a “pattern” of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Trump described the attack in stark moral terms that were reminiscent of the rhetoric that the George W. Bush administration employed before the 2003 Iraq War to describe Saddam Hussein. “This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime,” Trump said during a televised address on the night of April 13. “The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead.”
Trump said that the United States had to act because Washington needed to establish a deterrent against the use of chemical weapons. Most notably, the president further said that the United States will continue to strike at Syria until the Assad regime desists from using chemical weapons against its population.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said. “Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power—military, economic, and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
Targeting Syria’s Chemical Weapons
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was widely reported to be wary of intervention and the dangers of escalation in Syria, said that the United States focused its efforts strictly on degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons complex. The Pentagon took pains to avoid civilian casualties or hitting foreign—Russian and Iranian—forces operating in Syria so as not to escalate the conflict. “I want to emphasize that these strikes are directed at the Syrian regime,” Mattis said. “In conducting these strikes, we have gone to great lengths to avoid civilian and foreign casualties.”
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States, Britain and France select targets specifically used by the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons programs and great care was taken to avoid targets anywhere near Russian forces. Targets included a scientific research center—which was used to research, develop and test Syrian chemical weapons—and two storage depots filled with precursor materials and equipment needed to produce chemical weapons. A command and control facility was also hit.
“This evening we conducted strikes with two allies on multiple sites that will result in a long-term degradation of Syria's capability to research, develop and employ chemical and biological weapons,” Dunford said. “Important infrastructure was destroyed, which will result in a setback for the Syrian regime. They will lose years of research and development data, specialized equipment and expensive chemical weapons precursors. The strike was not only a strong message to the regime that their actions were inexcusable, but it also inflicted maximum damage, without unnecessary risk to innocent civilians.”
The Pentagon said it was not willing to share operational details about the operation until the morning of April 14, but the United States and its allies relied very heavily on Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy Aegis cruisers and destroyers as well as SCALP cruise missiles launched from the French frigate Aquitaine. Additionally, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by F-22 Raptor stealth fighters are thought to have launched long-range stealthy AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) weapons at Syrian targets. Those American warplanes are thought to have been augmented by British Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado and French Armée de l'Air (French air force) Dassault Rafale strike aircraft that launched Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missiles at Syrian targets.
Russian forces did not engage the incoming Allied air strikes, but the Pentagon went to great lengths to avoid hitting Moscow’s forces. Indeed, while the Pentagon did not forewarn or coordinate with Moscow, the United States used its bilateral deconfliction line to ensure that there were no unintended clashes with Russian forces. “We specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved, and we used our normal deconfliction channels—those were active this week—to work through the airspace issue and so forth,” Dunford said. “We did do not do any coordination with the Russians on the strikes, nor did we pre-notify them.”
Syrian forces, however, attempted to intercept the incoming strike to the best of their limited ability. “The only reaction that I'm aware of at this time was Syrian surface-to-air missiles,” Dunford said. “I happened to be down in an actual command—military command center and was aware of that activity. I'm not aware of any Russian activity, and I'm not aware of the full scope of the Syrian regime response at this time.”
Indeed, Damascus’ forces claim to have shot down 13 incoming missiles according Syrian state television. However, given the degraded state of Syria’s air defenses, these claims are extremely dubious. At the time of the Mattis and Dunford briefing, the United States was unaware of any casualties suffered by allied forces. “We want to give you a full brief in the morning. Right now, we have no reports of losses,” Mattis said.
While the United States and its allies will strike at the Syrian regime again if it uses chemical weapons in the future, for now, the strikes are over. “That will depend on Mr. Assad, should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future,” Mattis said. “And, of course, the powers that have signed the chemical weapons prohibition have every reason to challenge Assad should he choose to violate that. But right now, this is a one-time shot, and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this.”
Mattis said that the President of the United States has the authority under Article II of the Constitution of the United States to use force overseas to defend America’s national interests using military force. “As our commander in chief, the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests,” Mattis said. “The United States has an important national interest in averting a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.”
Setting aside the matter of if the United States has any vital interests in Syria, there is already rigorous debate over the legality of the U.S.-led airstrikes, which did not have the approval of the U.S. Congress. While some Democratic and Republican lawmakers are adamant that Trump should have secured Congressional approval for the strike, others are equally adamant that the attack was lawful—insofar as domestic law is concerned.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) was one lawmaker who opposed Trump’s strike on Syria—noting that only Congress has the power to authorize the use of force except in cases of self-defense. "President Trump's decision to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government without Congress's approval is illegal and — absent a broader strategy — it's reckless,” Kaine said in a statement. "Today, it's a strike on Syria — what's going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next? The last thing Congress should be doing is giving this president a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere."
Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash agreed. “These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless,” Amash said in a tweet. “The next speaker of the House must reclaim congressional war powers as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution. @SpeakerRyan has completely abdicated one of his most important responsibilities.”
Other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle praised Trump’s actions. Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson was among those who supported the attack. “I support the attack because Assad must be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons,” Nelson said in a tweet.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain applauded the strike on Syria, but decried what he viewed as the lack of a comprehensive strategy. “I applaud the President for taking military action against the Assad regime, and I am grateful to our British and French allies for joining us in this action,” McCain said in a tweet. “To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region.”
Trump’s strike on Syria is a violation of international law and the United Nations Carter—to which the United States is a party—according to a number of legal experts. “This military action is illegal,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said in a statement. “In the face of constitutional law barring hostile use of force without congressional authorization, and international law forbidding unilateral use of force except in self-defense, President Trump has unilaterally launched strikes against a country that has not attacked us — and without any authorization from Congress. Doing so violates some of the most important legal constraints on the use of force.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense confirms that none of its forces were struck during the attack, which means that Moscow will not likely retaliate via military means. “None of the cruise missiles launched by the United States and its allies entered the zones of Russian air defenses around Tartus and Hmeymim," the Russian Defense Ministry told TASS.
Indeed, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that France had warned Russia ahead of time to ensure the Kremlin’s forces were not caught in the crossfire. “We refuse any possibility of military escalation,” Parly said. "We had ensured that the Russians were warned beforehand."
However, the Russian government has reacted with fury to the Trump’s strike on Syria—and is promising there will be consequences. “The worst apprehensions have come true. Our warnings have been left unheard,” Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said in a statement. “A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris. Insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible. The U.S. – the possessor of the biggest arsenal of chemical weapons – has no moral right to blame other countries.”
Iran, which also has forces engaged in Syria, condemned the allied attack. “The attack is the blatant violation of international laws, as well as ignoring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” Bahram Qasemi, spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, said. “No doubt the US and its allies that are engaged a military intervention in Syria without any substantiated document and before any final report of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and have supposed themselves as the world police and judge, are responsible for regional and international repercussions of the adventure, and should be held accountable.”
Trump’s Message to Russia and Iran
Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, Trump is demanding that Russia and Iran abandon their Syrian ally. “I also have a message tonight for the two governments most responsible for supporting, equipping, and financing the criminal Assad regime,” Trump said. “To Iran, and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children? The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants, and murderous dictators.”
Trump called out Russia’s failure to ensure that Syria would not use chemical weapons. “In 2013, President Putin and his government promised the world that they would guarantee the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons,” Trump said. “Assad’s recent attack—and today’s response—are the direct result of Russia’s failure to keep that promise.”
Trump said that Russia has choice to make—either join the United States and its allies or become a pariah. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Trump said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran—but maybe not.”
The United States Will Not Stay Indefinitely
At the same time, Trump said that the United States will eventually withdraw from Syria—as the president had signaled in previous weeks. “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances,” Trump said. “As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home. And great warriors they are.”
Trump set forth limited aims. He depicted the problems in the Middle East as close to intractable. “Looking around our very troubled world, Americans have no illusions. We cannot purge the world of evil, or act everywhere there is tyranny,” Trump said. “No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place. The United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.