There is reason for some extremely cautious optimism about last Thursday’s U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian regime air base. America has thus far avoided some of the most obvious, dangerous pitfalls of any possible intervention in Syria. So, at a minimum, Americans should be happy not to find themselves in a worst-case scenario.
But there is certainly still reason for concern. Washington has endeavored to clearly communicate the limited objectives of its strikes, but there is nonetheless substantial ambiguity about American aims, much of it of Washington’s own making. Any reaction or counter-escalation by U.S. adversaries is now largely out of America’s control, and some opportunists are already trying to repurpose U.S. action for their own, less focused ends.
After Thursday, America — and everyone else with a hand in Syria’s war — is now pretty well into the unknown.
(Mostly) Limited U.S. Aims
President Donald Trump and senior members of his administration have mostly stuck to the rhetorical line that the U.S. cruise missile strikes on al-Sha’eirat Airbase were a direct, proportionate response to the Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons and, specifically, to Tuesday’s apparent nerve gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The president noted in his statement after launching the strikes that they were a “targeted military strike” on “the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.” He went on to explain 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.” Trump underscored that same logic in a letter sent to Congress Saturday, in which he said the attacks were aimed at degrading the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring further attacks.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his remarks on the eve of the strikes to clarify that “it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms” — points echoed Friday by Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations. Tillerson suggested this action did not represent “a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There’s been no change in that status.”
The strike, as it was executed and messaged, was meant to discourage the regime from further chemical weapons use — not to commit America to an unlimited escalation, or to some vague and impracticable goal of regime change.
The strike was launched to “deter the regime from using chemical weapons and so the proportionality is measured against that outcome,” a U.S. defense official told reporters Friday. “We do not believe it’s acceptable for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons.”
Still, U.S. officials have managed to somewhat muddy this message. Trump couched his message on chemical weapons deterrence in language about “beautiful babies” killed in the Khan Sheikhoun attack and a call for “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” Tillerson said, prior to Thursday’s strikes, that “steps are underway” to remove Assad, and his statement on the strikes voiced continued support for Geneva negotiations.
Haley, meanwhile, has been all over the map. Haley used her remarks at the U.N Security Council after the strike to send a mostly on-point message about the “very measured step” the United States had taken. Before the strike, she had said that Assad’s removal was no longer a U.S. priority. Then, days after the strike, Haley said in an interview that “there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.” Haley’s comments — coming alongside those of Tillerson and others — raise the question as to whether key administration figures are aligned or even communicating on major policy questions like Assad’s removal.