WASHINGTON (Circa) — After weighing a response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people, President Donald Trump ordered a limited military strike Friday to destroy key elements of Syria's chemical weapons program.
The United States, France and Great Britain coordinated the strike, which the Pentagon described as "precise, overwhelming, and effective." The allies deployed 105 cruise missiles to destroy three targets outside Damascus, two chemical weapons storage facilities and a scientific research center believed to be involved in chemical and biological warfare technology.
The action was intended to deter the future use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime, according to the White House.
Trump promptly declared "Mission Accomplished," but the military action raised fresh questions about the Trump administration's strategy with respect to the seven-year Syrian civil war.
A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2018
President Trump has shown no interest in a prolonged U.S. military presence in Syria. On Friday, he warned, "No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East," adding, "America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances."
Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a similar statement describing the U.S. and allied strike as "a one-time shot" to deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.
Addressing the broader conflict, Mattis stressed that the solution to the seven-year civil war in Syria is diplomatic, not military. He then urged all nations to "urgently unite" behind the United Nations-backed Geneva Peace Process.
Whether it's in the diplomatic and military arena, the United States is fundamentally limited in its ability to influence the outcome in Syria, explained Stephen Biddle, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and former U.S. military adviser.
"The negotiating process at the moment is driven by Assad's increasing ability to simply dictate terms," Biddle said. "To change that, the United States would have to change the military facts on the ground and that is an expensive enterprise way beyond what a handful of cruise missiles would do."
Currently, the White House, the Department of Defense and the majority of the American people do not support the kind of U.S. investment that would be needed to put America in a position of dictating the terms of a Syrian settlement to Assad or his backers, Russia and Iran.
Many Americans are rightfully disturbed by the atrocities committed during the Syrian war, which has led to demands that the U.S. do something to stop it. "But nobody wants to do enough to actually make a difference," Biddle noted. "And that includes Donald Trump."
During the 15 months since Trump took office, Assad, with the help of the Russian military, has made consistent territorial gains, retaking control of the majority of Syria's population centers in the west and southern part of the country. The U.S.-backed Kurdish forces control a smaller portion of northeast Syria.
At the same time, Iran has established a foothold in Syria and are on the verge of completing a "land bridge" from Tehran to the Mediterranean, to Israel's border. Such a route would allow Iran to easily transport weapons and supplies to its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen and the Golan Heights.
With few clearly-defined interests in the conflict and virtually no ground presence to enforce them, the United States doesn't have the leverage to drive a diplomatic solution in its favor or impose significant military costs without risking escalation.
"People don't grant you concessions just because you show up and ask for them," Biddle said. "People grant you concessions if they think you have some ability to deny them what they want. And right now we have very little ability to do that."
On Monday, the United States was expected to flex its diplomatic muscle and impose new costs on Russia for its continued support to Assad and failure to fully implement a 2013 agreement to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced over the weekend that Treasury would announce Russian sanctions on Monday to send a "strong message" to Russia.
.@USUN Ambassador Nikki Haley: We did not give diplomacy one chance, we gave diplomacy chance after chance. We hoped diplomacy would succeed. But six times, #Russia used its veto to block #UNSC resolutions to address chemical weapons in #Syria. pic.twitter.com/rHjaZj4Aid— Department of State (@StateDept) April 14, 2018
The White House backed away from those sanctions. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Monday saying the administration is "considering additional sanction on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future."
WHAT ARE U.S. INTERESTS IN SYRIA?
Just one week before sending a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria, Trump called for the withdrawal of U.S. special operations forces from Syria, where they have nearly defeated the Islamic State terrorist group, ISIS. The roughly 2,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria are specifically part of the anti-ISIS campaign, not the broader Syrian civil war.
The defeat of the Islamic State has been the Trump administration's central objective in Syria. After announcing the terrorist group was more than 90 percent destroyed, Trump told a group of supporters earlier this month, "Let the other people take care of it now."
Like his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump must answer to a war-weary American public on one side without appearing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities. He also has to answer to his own campaign promise to stay out of the Syrian civil war and avoid "nation-building" while not appearing to cede U.S. influence in the region to Syria, Russia and Iran.
Trump has also made it clear that the cost of U.S. involvement in foreign wars is unacceptable. He recently pointed to the $7 trillion cost of America's post-9/11 wars saying the United States got "nothing" in exchange "except death and destruction."
The Department of Defense is similarly reluctant to commit forces to Syria, beyond the anti-ISIS fight. Russia's military presence in Syria has raised the stakes for any U.S. strike on the regime that could potentially cause a Russian casualty. Russia's Ministry of Defense has warned that a U.S. strike in Syria that endangers Russian military personnel will be met with "retaliatory measures both over the missiles and carriers that will use them."
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week, Secretary of Defense Mattis outlined the administration's strategy in Syria. "We’re trying to stop the murder of innocent people, but on a strategic level it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control," Mattis explained. "We are not going to engage in the civil war itself."
Mattis then outlined three core interests in Syria: the defeat of the Islamic State, enforcing the international ban on the use of chemical weapons, and resolving the Syrian conflict through the Geneva process.
The United States has been involved in the Geneva process since it began in 2012. Little progress has been made in recent years towards bringing the regime, the opposition and regional stakeholders to the table to negotiate a political solution to civil war. The process is currently being held up by the Syrian regime and Russia, who have reportedly refused to negotiate and have little incentive to make concessions to the opposition.
"We are probably not going to get an outcome in Syria that we like," explained Biddle. Without committing more resources than the Trump administration or the American people have shown a desire for, the United States will be in a position of managing the problems in Syria, not solving them.
"The situation there is bad for the United States, but the scale of our interest is lower than the scale of the investment we would have to make to secure them," he stated.
Many lawmakers were pressing Trump to take action before Friday, insisting that something had to be done to respond to Assad's alleged chemical weapons attack. Many of the president's supporters and opponents applauded the action, but are now demanding new questions about the long-term U.S. interests and strategy in Syria.
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on the administration to explain its objectives, stating, "One night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was one of the harshest critics of Obama's approach to Syria, applauded President Trump's military strike, but similarly called on the administration to provide a comprehensive strategy. "The President needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to ISIS, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region," McCain said.
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. To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region. https://t.co/2xrHwVGYKK— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 14, 2018
Trump is also facing a growing chorus of lawmakers on the left and right who are calling into question the legal justification for the military strike on Syria. Hours before Trump ordered the attack, a bipartisan group of 88 congressmen sent a letter to the White House urging the president to consult Congress before engaging the U.S. military in Syria.
This week, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are expected to discuss the president's war powers. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is drafting an authorization for the use of military force, called Trump's failure to get congressional approval before the military strike on Syria "illegal" and "reckless."