U.S. Upholds Its Red Line in Syria, While Steering Clear of Russia’s
In carrying out airstrikes in Syria on Saturday, the U.S. and its allies were trying to maintain a careful balance: upholding their red line against the use of chemical weapons, without crossing Moscow’s red lines against toppling President Bashar al-Assad or targeting Russian forces.
The attack was larger than President Donald Trump’s previous strike against Syria in April 2017. About twice as many bombs were dropped, compared with last year. And this time, the U.S. didn’t go it alone but carried out the attacks along with its British and French allies.
But the attack was narrowly focused, seeking to cripple Mr. Assad’s chemical-weapons infrastructure without triggering a broader conflict with Russia and Iran.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May. “It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
Complicating the mission was Syria’s decision to move some of its combat planes to airfields that were occupied by Russian forces.
For the U.S. and its allies, the solution was to strike three targets, including a scientific research center in Damascus and a weapons-storage site west of Homs where no Russians were believed to be present.
A war of words also added to the tensions. Earlier in the week, a Russian diplomat said his country’s forces would shoot down U.S. missiles launched at Syria, and Mr. Trump retaliated on Twitter, saying U.S. technology would triumph over Russian defenses. The exchange raised the prospect of a clash between Washington and Moscow, though the U.S. and Russian militaries appeared to be looking for a way to avoid a confrontation.
U.S. and Allies Strike Syria
The U.S., the U.K. and France launched airstrikes against sites associated with Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities.
The U.S. didn’t notify the Russians about the targets, but it reduced the risk of a clash with the Russian air force by letting their commanders know what airspace American and allied forces would be using—a process the Pentagon dubs “deconfliction.”
The effort to avoid a clash with Russian forces appeared to succeed. The Pentagon said it didn’t detect the firing of any Russian surface-to-air missiles, though Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries were fired.
Still, the limited nature of the military intervention is likely to yield only limited gains, experts said.
“It will make Assad sit up and pay attention to the Americans,” said Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria. “He will stop using chemical weapons for a while.”
But Mr. Ford said the strike wouldn’t fundamentally alter the balance of power on the ground or the course of the civil war. Mr. Assad remains in power, and he can still attack civilians using conventional barrel bombs.
The 2017 strike, which was directed at 59 targets on a single airfield, persuaded Mr. Assad to refrain from chemical attacks for a time. But because the strike was cast as a one-time warning to the regime, Mr. Assad’s forces began to use chlorine weapons after several weeks, finally building up to what U.S. experts say was a nerve-gas attack earlier this month.
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria issues, said that to effectively deter Mr. Assad from resorting once again to chemical weapons, the U.S. needs to send a strong diplomatic signal that it is prepared to use military force again if necessary.
“For this operation to have significance, there has to be significant diplomatic follow-up,” Mr. Hof said. “Otherwise, this is just going to be a lot of sound and fury, and Assad is going to be back to business as usual, probably not using the strongest stuff but using everything else he has at his disposal.”
Mr. Trump appeared to trying to do exactly that by asserting that the U.S. was prepared for a “sustained” operation, though his defense secretary said the strike was a “one-time shot,” assuming Mr. Assad didn’t use chemical weapons again.
The still unanswered question is what the Trump administration’s broader policy is for Syria and the region and how the cruise-missile attacks might support it. Early this month, Mr. Trump said he wanted a quick withdrawal from Syria. Pentagon officials urged the president to give them more time to complete the defeat of Islamic State in Syria.
But it remains unclear how the U.S. hopes to encourage a diplomatic settlement for Syria if Mr. Assad, Russia and Iran still hold the high cards on the battlefield.