In an almost immediate response to Assad again using the sarin chemical agent as a weapon against his own population, President Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against the Shayrat air base from which the Syrian planes took off to drop these chemical weapons on the civilian population in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. According to satellite imagery, the attacks were very precise, destroying aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment.
The trigger for this swift and unprecedented response was clearly not the number of people that have been brutally killed in the Syrian civil war — now nearing half a million. Nor was it a response to the use of any chemical agents, as Assad has used chlorine a number of times over the past few years to attack his population, with only minor international reaction. The relative passivity in the face of chlorine use results from the international community not declaring chlorine a prohibited chemical weapon according to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). What the Trump administration was responding to was the devastating use of a banned chemical agent — sarin — by the Assad regime, especially after the previous use in August 2013, which crossed the red line defined at the time by President Obama and was not met with a military response. Instead, Obama chose to join the Russians in forcing Assad to ratify the CWC and dismantle his entire chemical arsenal, which clearly did not happen, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of the work carried out by the OPCW.
As such, and in light of US administration statements regarding the attack, more than anything, this strike seems to have been carried out in the context of the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Assad blatantly broke a clearly set international norm against the possession and use of chemical weapons, which he had agreed to adhere to when he joined the CWC. Not only did he secretly and illicitly keep a portion of his arsenal, but he dared to use it once again. There was no doubt also an emotional element involved in Trump’s decision, having seen the evidence of the effects of the sarin attack, but such was the case also following the initial use of chemical weapons in WWI, leading to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which first prohibited their use.
But does this mean that any future WMD attack will now be followed by a US military response? The administration is not declaring precise red lines, but is rather indicating through its action and rhetoric that the US will not stand idly by in the face of these actions by dangerous proliferators. The strike in Syria joins the administration’s response to Iran’s missile test in late January, and the more recent message to North Korea that if it continues to escalate nuclear threats, the US may have to take preemptive action. Trump’s action not only helps restore US deterrence, but also demonstrates US leadership in facing these proliferators. Responding as he has to a moral issue, the message takes on additional significance.
While questions have been raised about whether this act necessitated prior approval of Congress, the reality is that had Trump wavered, or gone to Congress, those who tend to argue against any US response to provocative behavior on the part of determined proliferators would have sounded the “risking escalation” alarm. The argument against military action that might lead to escalation could have carried the day in foreign policy debates, ending up making this necessary response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons politically risky for the president. It was very important that he acted swiftly and decisively, and the results speak for themselves. Aside from Russia and Iran, the US strike was widely accepted in the international community, and in some cases praised; and because of the way it was carried out — including advance notice to Russia — it will most likely not engender further escalation, although it does place further strain on US-Russian relations.
What about the Israel connection? Against the backdrop of some voices heard in Israel that called on the Israeli government to take the moral high ground in response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack, even proposing to attack Syria, if the government had indeed responded militarily in this case, Israel most likely would have been condemned. While Israel can and has taken action when its specific interests are at stake — such as when dangerous weapons are transferred through Syria to Hezbollah — the situation would most likely be viewed differently were Israel to act in the name of the international community. What the US can and should do — Israel cannot.
The message from this attack is not that the US has devised a strategy for intervening in Syria to end the civil war. Even though the administration now advocates the departure of Assad, only days before the attack it noted that the US would not pursue a policy of ousting Assad, but would rather leave that up to the Syrian people to decide. The message is rather about restoring US leadership and strengthening the deterrent message to Assad and other WMD proliferators — especially Iran and North Korea — that the possession and use of weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated. What this suggests is a more limited aim regarding Syria, but at the same time it implies a much broader aim as far as US commitment to keeping WMD out of the hands of dangerous regimes, especially when they go so far as to use them. Nevertheless, restoring effective deterrence will necessitate an ongoing effort, and the determined proliferators will very likely continue to test US commitment and credibility in this regard.
This article was co-authored by Ambassador Shimon Stein, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).