The U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield suspected of launching a chemical weapons attack was described as a matter of “vital national security” by President Donald J. Trump. Though unilateral, the attack has drawn international support and can be justified as enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), says CFR’s Lori Esposito Murray, a veteran arms control official and former special advisor to the president on the CWC.
Since Syria is a signatory to the 192-member CWC, the aftermath of the most recent chemical attack is far different than that of the 2013 sarin attack, says Murray. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now faces “not just more international pressure, but legal pressure,” Murray says, “and it provides an even stronger international legal basis for [Trump’s] action.”
A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan SheikhounA civil defense member after a suspected gas attack in northern Idlib. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)
What do you think will be the consequences of the attack on the Syrian airfield?
It was a targeted attack to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons ability, and a tactically proportionate response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib. The Trump administration stated it had high confidence that the Syrian government, under the leadership of Assad, carried out the attack using sarin. It targeted the airfield from which, we believe, the Syrian aircraft involved in the chemical weapons attack launched.
But the strike does have a larger purpose, in terms of trying to deter the Assad regime from carrying out a chemical weapons attack again. The attack and the president’s subsequent statement sent a strong signal that the United States would not tolerate Assad violating international law—the CWC—and international norms that date to the end of World War I. The administration has been careful to make clear that this isn't a change in U.S. military strategy in Syria, but a response to a specific action Assad took. It then puts the ball in Assad's court.
The strike will also have a larger impact on political and diplomatic efforts regarding the future of Syria. Assad's position has been deeply damaged. This week began with the Trump administration saying it was a reality that Assad will remain in power and that the United States would no longer focus its energies on getting rid of him. The Trump administration has since made a large leap, attacking Syria and then saying it no longer believes that Assad has a role in the country’s future. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in Moscow next week. The next several days and weeks will be important in determining whether the United States can leverage the strike for broader political momentum aimed at resolving the civil war.