The actions of Bashar Assad in Syria are deplorable—unforgivable and demanding of action. That’s why President Barack Obama went to Congress with a request for military action in 2013. Here’s how Mitch McConnell responded to that request.
"I will be voting against this resolution. A vital national security risk is clearly not at play, there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there, and on the specific question of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the president’s proposal appears to be based on a contradiction. Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime — something the president says he does not intend to do — or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration."
A demonstration is exactly what Donald Trump delivered overnight. Of 59 tomahawk missiles fired into Syria, it appears that 58 successfully struck targets around the Shayrat Airfield, which is tied to the helicopters that delivered a chemical attack in the Idlibprovince earlier this week. The targets were mostly heavy half-pipe shaped bunkers made of thick reinforced concrete, under which the Syrian regime can park planes or helicopters to protect them from just this sort of assault. Also struck were fuel tanks and warehouses that were likely used for conventional arms, supplies, and spare parts. Bunkers suspected of holding chemical weapons were specifically avoided.
From videos released this morning, it appears that the missiles reached their targets and scored damage against the airbase.
However, to a far greater degree than President Obama, who presented Congress with a plan for further action, the attack Trump has made is a demonstration and only a demonstration. Which leaves open a very big question: Now what?
In terms of actual damage done to the Assad regime, the consequences of the attack are low. Yes, Assad may have lost some vehicles from his already tiny air force, but those planes and helicopters already represented the smallest fraction of his forces. Plus, the craft that Assad used to attack Idlibwere helicopters. Helicopters don’t have to sit at an airbase — particularly in a period immediately following a threat, and when attacking this base was exactly the first step proposed everyone for years. The tomahawks hit bunkers. It’s not clear at this point to what extent they degraded Assad’s ability to repeat the slaughter in Idlib.
Whether or not the missiles hit actual craft, the effectiveness of that attack in terms of disabling Assad is probably next to nothing. After all, Assad can easily resupply. His chief partners are right there, at other air bases in the country. He's not North Korea, and he's not Saddam in the middle of a rapidly escalating attack. He can get more fuel. He can get more ammo.
Assad may sit down and stop the chemical attacks. That’s what happened when President Obama simply threatened this sort of action in 2013. He may do something else.
They have carried out years of airstrikes -- likely killing hundreds of thousands -- used starve and surrender tactics, bombed hospitals repeatedly, and carried out at least two savage chemical weapons attacks.
The world's self-declared moral authority strikes once, and Assad's regime loses an airfield. For the regime, it could be viewed as an acceptable outcome.
If Assad’s loses were small enough, he may simply do it again. After all, tossing a few missiles at a military target is the easiest step imaginable. Trump risked nothing on the U.S. side, and hit a target on the Syrian side that might as well have been painted with a flashing target. It doesn’t get any simpler. It’s not a test, it’s just the first question.
However, it’s quite likely that those missiles represent not just the beginning of Trump’s “strategy,” but the end as well. It would be squarely in line with actions going back to Ronald Reagan bombing of Muammar Gaddafi in 1986, a military action that also began and ended on a single day in April.
Unless Trump does more than this single attack, the course of the war in Syria is unlikely to be affected. That course currently sees Damascus steadily scoring victories against the rebels, capturing the Idlib area, and Assad securing his control of the nation while Russia holds his right flank. The U.S. actions would barely be a footnote for a long, bloody, horrible war that has seen Assad take brutal action of every sort.
However, in the last day, both Trump and Rex Tillerson have reversed their previous statements and made several comments indicating that they intend to oust Assad. If that’s seriously Trump’s intention, then the rest of the strategy must be truly incredible. Because the rebel forces that might have replaced Assad as a central Syrian government in 2013 are a shadow of what they were. There no longer appears to be any effective means of partitioning the nation or supporting anti-Assad forces.
An invasion of Syria at this point would present all the problems of the invasion of Iraq—the direct removal of a government and creating an alternative. Except that in the case of Syria, there is a huge additional complexity.
Arguably the main point of Russia's intervention in Syria was to embolden Moscow on the world stage after the crippling effects of sanctions on their economy.
Now they must find an appropriate response to having an airbase -- where they have stationed assets -- flattened in a US strike.
And this is the reason that President Obama was willing to settle for an agreement that Assad pack away his chemical weapons and did not force the issue of military action. Is the United States really willing to wage an assault on Russia’s only Middle East ally? A place where they not only have thousands of active troops and squadrons of planes, but a country that is as vital to them as Israel is to the United States. Worse, Russian interests in the region are tied not to Syria the place, but directly to the Assad regime. They will not stand aside.
But … that’s all likely beside the point. It’s quite probable that Donald Trump’s intentions in Syria were expended along with that flight of tomahawks. It was an action taken specifically to not risk any Russian assets and not to destabilize Assad’s government.
Most of all, it’s an action that visually good for Trump. It’s an attack that had far more to do with pushing Devin Nunes and the Gallup Poll out of the news than it does with chemical attacks in Idlib.
After all, Donald Trump talking about “beautiful babies” in Syria is so sickeningly hypocritical that it demands a new word. These are the same people that Trump condemned over, and over, and over. Some of those children who died in the Idlib attack might have been sitting in kindergartens in Ohio, or pre-schools in Minnesota or at new homes in Pennsylvania, except that Donald Trump sold his voters on the idea that these beautiful babies deserved to be trapped in a war zone.
Their blood is on more hands than just Bashar Assad.