It has been clear for some time — telegraphed in typically blustering language on Twitter — that President Donald Trump intended to make Syrian President Bashar Assad pay a price for the poisoning deaths of dozens of people earlier this month in the rebel-held town of Duma. On Friday evening, Trump announced that he had indeed ordered “precision strikes” on facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program and that they were being coordinated with the armed forces of Britain and France. On Saturday morning, Trump and other administration officials declared the mission a success.
Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Trump’s decision, he is right to see the use of chemical weapons as especially abhorrent. Of course, conventional weapons also cause death and injury, and a child killed by a barrel bomb is just as dead as a child poisoned by sarin or chlorine gas. But for a century, chemical weapons have been viewed by civilized nations as beyond the pale. The descriptions in recent days of Syrian victims gasping, trembling and foaming at the mouth only reinforces that view. If the deployment of such weapons in Syria goes unpunished, other governments and movements might be emboldened to violate that prohibition. That Britain and France were willing to participate in the strikes with the United States is proof that alarm about these atrocities isn’t unique to the United States.
Whether this weekend’s attack will succeed in its objective of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons is less clear. On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Mission Accomplished!” and a Pentagon spokeswoman said that U.S. officials believed the strikes had “significantly crippled” Assad’s ability to carry out future chemical weapons attacks. Yet Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, acknowledged that “there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there.”
Of course, the risk of such a strike is that it will further entangle the United States in this tragic and terribly complex conflict, and that it will lead, ultimately, to confrontation with Russia, Iran and other powers involved in the region. Trump has asserted repeatedly that he wants to disengage from Syria, yet in his address to the nation Friday evening, he said: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” And Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency Security Council meeting Saturday that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” for further military action in the event the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons again.
If Trump indeed decides further military action is necessary — and we firmly hope that it will not be — he should seek authority in advance from Congress, as he should have done in this case. He also should seek approval for the current deployment of 2,000 troops engaged in combating the remnants of Islamic State.
In his speech, Trump reiterated that he intends to withdraw those U.S. forces once they complete their mission, adding that “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria.” That was an implicit rebuke to those who have argued that the U.S. should use its military presence in Syria not only to deter Assad from using chemical weapons but also to undermine his influence or even drive him from power.
Some of those who believe the U.S. should play a larger role in the Syrian conflict had hoped that Trump’s retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in Duma would be an attack powerful enough to destroy much of Assad’s military. The president, wisely, rejected that advice. A more ambitious military strike would have posed the immediate danger of a confrontation with Russian forces and other consequences, not all of them foreseeable.
Trump said Friday that “the purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.” He was right not to extend the mission to regime change.
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