The U.S. Air Strike in Syria: First Thoughts

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President Trump speaks about the firing of U.S. cruise missiles into Syria.President Trump speaks about the firing of U.S. cruise missiles into Syria.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX BRANDON / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The United States launched a missile strike in Syria on Thursday, in response to a chemical-weapons attack this week by the Syrian regime that killed dozens of civilians. Below, New Yorker writers offer some initial reactions to the news.

During his short time in office, President Trump has authorized the stepped-up U.S. bombing of ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, a commando raid in Yemen, and, on Thursday, a Tomahawk-missile attack on a Syrian government airfield. Trump “campaigned to get US out of foreign wars,” the Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu, a U.S. Air Force veteran and strident critic of the President, wrote on Twitter immediately after news of the missile strike broke. “His actions in Syria, Iraq & Yemen show he is acting like a warmonger.”

Some people will disagree with Lieu’s interpretation. On Thursday night, prominent Republicans were queuing up to express support for the attack in Syria. “Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people,” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement.

It wasn’t just Republican politicians who lined up behind the White House. “The U.S. was right to strike the Syrian Air Force,” Nicholas Burns, a veteran U.S. diplomat who worked for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said on Twitter. Referring to Bashar al-Assad, the dictatorial President of Syria, Burns went on, “Assad needs to know he cannot use chemical weapons without a response from the U.S.”

Some senior Democrats expressed support for the military strike, even while arguing that Trump should have consulted Congress beforehand. “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will commit a price is the right thing to do,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement. Schumer went on, “I salute the professionalism and skill of our Armed Forces who took action today.” (Hours before the attack, Hillary Clinton argued in an interview that the United States should destroy some of Assad’s military capabilities. “We should have, and still should, take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people,” Clinton said.)

Despite these and other expressions of support from hawkish members of the Washington establishment, Trump’s dramatic turnaround over Syria demands an explanation beyond his comments that he was moved by photographs of children who died this week in the horrific gas attack that Western governments believe was carried out by Assad’s forces. On Thursday night, speaking to reporters at Mar-a-Lago, where he is playing host to Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, Trump said, “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

Trump went on to say that it was in the “vital national-security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He added, “Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

This statement raised as many questions as it answered. Assad’s brutality has been obvious for years. It was obvious in the summer of 2013, when President Obama considered a military strike in response to an earlier chemical-weapons attack by Syrian government forces. On that occasion, Trump, then a private citizen, urged caution, writing on Twitter, “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” A week, later, again on Twitter, Trump warned, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Assad’s disregard for human life was in evidence again late last year, when his forces surrounded and bombed eastern Aleppo, killing and injuring a large numbers of civilians who were trapped in the city. That bloodshed didn’t prompt any eagerness to oust Assad on Trump’s part: to the contrary.

Only last week, senior Administration officials indicated that they were willing to see the Syrian leader remain in power indefinitely. “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept. The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said, echoing statements made by both Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, and Nikki Haley, the Ambassador to the United Nations.

Evidently, these “profound priorities” have changed, but why? Which of Trump’s foreign-policy advisers pushed him to take military action? Were any other options considered? What is the Trump Administration’s strategy on Syria going forward, and has it now endorsed regime change? What are the consequences for the war on ISIS, and for the military offensive against Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the terrorist group’s stronghold? Will Trump help alleviate the refugee crisis, which he referred to in his statement on Thursday, by admitting more displaced Syrians to the United States? And did Trump’s lowly poll ratings play any role in his decision to strike? In September, 2012, Trump tweeted, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in a tailspin–watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”

On the morning after, these questions, and others, demand answers.

-John Cassidy

Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, must be stunned. For years, his military has been carrying out mass atrocities against Syrian civilians at will—bombing hospitals; dropping barrels filled with oil, shrapnel, and high explosives; and, most gruesomely, shelling civilians with chemical weapons—and never paying the slightest price. Again and again, Assad’s confederates carried out their gruesome work in defiance of the world, save for his allies in Iran, Russia, and southern Lebanon. And always, Assad got away with it, denying any wrongdoing even in the face of overwhelming eyewitness testimony and physical evidence. Most notoriously, in 2013, the Assad regime shelled the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta with poison gas, killing at least fourteen hundred people and maiming thousands. At the time, instead of taking military action against Assad, President Obama demanded that Syria turn over its chemical-weapons stockpile—an agreement that seemed shaky from the start. Since then, the regime has shelled civilians with chlorine gas on numerous occasions, giving the lie to the deal.

Now, for the first time, Assad is paying a price for the crimes of his regime. Thursday’s missile strike does not appear to be intended to overthrow the Syrian regime so much as simply to punish it. The overarching aim of Trump and his advisers appears to be to reëstablish a deterrent against the use of the most terrible of weapons. Whether the strike will have its intended effect won’t be clear for some time.

-Dexter Filkins

The Trump Administration’s decision to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Al Shayrat airbase may assuage anger over the Syrian regime’s killing of more than eighty civilians, including some two dozen children, in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. As far as military effectiveness, the strike leaves much of Syria’s military capability intact. The Pentagon described the operation as a “proportional response” to the Syrian assault, but it was a comparatively small military strike. It will not significantly alter the military balance. It will do virtually nothing to assist rebels fighting the regime. Syria has several other airbases, dozens of warplanes, and additional capacity to strike opposition areas.

Nor does the strike resolve a much bigger question: what to do to end the most gruesome civil war in modern Middle East history and the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Every major player involved, directly or indirectly—from the United States and the Arab regimes opposed to Bashar al-Assad to Russia and Iran, the Syrian leader’s main backers—has said publicly that there is no military solution.

The Trump Administration’s decision to launch an air strike may lead the Assad regime to balk at participation in peace talks. Syrian state television immediately charged the United States with “aggression.”

The Trump Administration—like the Obama Administration before it—still faces the challenge of identifying a credible alternative to Assad, as well as a mechanism to end the civil war. The Administration had indicated a willingness to consider the initiative to start peace talks begun earlier this year by Russia and Iran. The Pentagon said on Thursday night that Russian forces had been “notified in advance of the strike. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russia or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.” The U.S. strike may complicate that process, too. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is scheduled for talks in Moscow on Wednesday. Syria will clearly now be at the top of the agenda.

Robin Wright

Past New Yorker coverage of Syria:

Ben Taub, “The Assad Files”: on the top-secret documents that tie the Syrian regime to mass torture and killings. (April 18, 2016)

Patrick Radden Keefe, “Rocket Man”: on an unemployed British blogger who confirmed Syria’s use of chemical weapons. (November 25, 2013)

Dexter Filkins, “The Thin Red Line”: on the debate inside the Obama Administration over how to handle the crisis in Syria. (May 13, 2013)