Monday, April 16, 2018


President Trump and his national security team deserve high praise for their recent action in attacking Syrian chemical weapons facilities. They did everything right. Not only was it well-justified and timely, the president and his team did not rush into an attack but waited several days to evaluate the intelligence from various sources, develop attack options that met the president’s specific objective, and form a coalition with key allies Great Britain and France for the strike.

The limited strike itself went off without a hitch. Designated chemical weapons facilities in Damascus and outside were precisely struck with little collateral damage. Ample warning was given to the Russians through “deconfliction channels” so that there would be no Russian casualties and they would not be dragged into a larger conflict. As a military operation, it’s one that can go into future textbooks.

Searching for any possible excuse, the “hate Trump no matter what” critics can only cling to a banal argument that he didn’t ask Congress for a declaration of war against Syria, or that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was no longer valid or didn’t apply. For now, however, Article II of the U.S. Constitution as well as the AUMF are still operative, and this argument just won’t fly.

What is useful to ask now is just why did Syrian President Bashar Assad engage in yet another chemical attack, and how was President Trump’s clear message received. Mr. Assad himself, following in his father’s footsteps, has no real use for international law, the international community or any sense of morality. By most accounts he has already slaughtered close to a million of his own people in over six years of a horrific civil war. He simply doesn’t care what the U.S. says, and his Russian and Iranian backers don’t appear inclined to stop him.

Since the onset of the Syrian civil war Mr. Assad has been plagued with a rebel stronghold in Eastern Gouda, close to Damascus, that he has been unable to clean out with conventional military operations; and this hasn’t been for want of trying. Clearly ignoring the message Mr. Trump sent him with the April 2017 missile strike after an earlier chemical attack, Mr. Assad undertook another one.

But wait for a moment and consider: What was Mr. Trump’s 2017 message to Mr. Assad? If you engage in another chemical attack there will be consequences and a cost. Mr. Trump was being entirely honest, and with this recent attack there were consequence and a cost. The critical questions remain. Was this a cost Mr. Assad was willing to bear? What did he ultimately get out of it?

Forget about international condemnation on the illegal use of chemical weapons. Mr. Assad just doesn’t care. Bottom line so far is that the missile strike by the U.S., Great Britain and France cost him one building in Damascus, reportedly a chemical weapons R&D facility, as well as two storage depots with likely stockpiles of more chemical ordnance.

What is lost for the moment is what Mr. Assad got out of all this. While almost all of the media attention has been on the 40 or 50 civilian victims of the chemical attack in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, very little has been focused on the fact that several thousand rebels were “permitted” to leave on buses for territory in Northern Syria. In short, Mr. Assad got thousands of rebels that had been driving him crazy for years out of the Damascus suburbs with virtually no losses to his own forces. Was this worth the R&D building and two storage depots? Obviously yes. Most likely he sees this as a “win.”

For decades U.S. strategic policy has been built on the concept of “deterrence” whereby an adversary is stopped from taking some hostile action because the cost of doing so is too high. This has served the nation well for many years, and current national security policy is based on the concepts of “extended deterrence” and “tailored assurance.” Clearly the Trump team applied this to the Syrian situation.

While Mr. Trump and his team all made it perfectly clear to Mr. Assad what the costs would be of another chemical attack, it may not have been clear to the team that Mr. Assad’s own calculation was that this “cost” was not only acceptable but indeed, may have been a bargain. Deterrence only works where the costs are too high. It fails if the costs are seen as a good deal by the other side.

What happens next is hard to say. Even the best analysts inside and outside the government aren’t in agreement. With the rebels in Eastern Ghouta now gone, Mr. Assad may just give up use of chemical weapons entirely. The U.S. and the allies may see this as a “win” and look to extricate U.S. forces from Syria as quickly as possible. Mr. Assad will most certainly see this as a “win” as well. The lengthy Syrian civil war appears to be slowly moving toward an end, although there is no serious chance that Mr. Assad will yield power, or that Syria itself will look anything like its pre-war state. Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah have all become major factors inside Syria — a fact which does not bode well for Israel or allied interests in the Middle East.

• Abraham Wagner is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism and author of several books on military operations in the Middle East.

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