Trump’s Syria Strike Fell Short
One month later, U.S. strategy remains rudderless
Is Hillary Clinton right? On May 2, 2017, she said she supported Pres. Donald Trump’s cruise missile attack on Syria, but with a caveat: “I am not convinced that it really made much of a difference.”
Almost one month after the April 7 strike, the expert consensus seems to be that the attack did make a difference, but fell short of its larger objectives, including any intended message to America’s adversaries and allies. It is a sobering reminder of the limited ability of military force to resolve a strategic dilemma.
The strikes launched against Syria’s Al Shayrat Airbase from the Navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross achieved their prime objective: Assad has not launched any further chemical attacks on the Syrian people.
“It’s important that…the international community make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said while describing the rationale for the attack.
RAND’s Senior Middle East Analyst Jeffrey Martini concludes, “If we take the secretary’s explanation at face value, then the metric for judging the success of the operation is fairly straightforward. Should Assad refrain from further use of chemical weapons … then the action was successful in that the change in behavior sought would be realized.”
The strikes have not, however, succeeded in the grander aims administration officials posited. White House press secretary Sean Spicer boasted that the strike had knocked out the airfield: “The resulting action of what happened ensured that their fueling operation is gone … 20 percent of their fixed wing aircraft were destroyed and knocked out.”
Military flights from the Al Shayrat Airbase, however, resumed quickly, according to both Syrian state media outlets and opposition groups. Jets took off from the base the day after the strike, attacking the same town hit by the chemical weapons.
Spicer also promised, “if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president.” This appeared to threaten further strikes should Assad use barrel bombs, a weapon he has used heavily, dropping 12,958 in 2016 alone.
Assad has continued to use these bombs in large quantities. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports the regime has actually increased the use of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and barrel bombs since the strike, resulting in the deaths of at least 98 civilians, including 24 children just from April 7 to April 11, 2017.
Furthermore Russian and regime forces continue to carry out air strikes on innocent civilians, focusing their latest air strikes on three hospitals in northern Syria on April 27, 2017. In April alone, Russian and regime-led air strikes killed 543 civilians.
Secretary Tillerson made perhaps the most sweeping claim after the operation: “we rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents in the world.”
But the slaughter of innocents continues around the world, and particularly in Syria, without any U.S. response. “The U.S. missile strikes might conceivably deter further chemical weapons attacks,” warns Aditi Gorur, Director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program at the Stimson Center, “but conventional attacks on civilians will continue, backed by Russia.”
The 59-cruise missile attack now appears as an isolated gesture, divorced from any clear strategy for bringing an end to the Syrian carnage.
Many have speculated the strike was less about Syria and more about impacting domestic public opinion. Trump would not be the first president down in the polls and beset with scandals to “wag the dog.” There is some good news for Trump in this regard. The air strike was popular with the American public—but not that popular. Fifty-one percent of the public supported the strike, according to the Washington Post.
This makes the Syria strike the most popular national security step Trump has taken; more popular than his confrontation with North Korea, where 61 percent of the American public prefer sanctions, not a military confrontation. It is certainly more popular than his tough talk on Iran, where 56 percent of American voters support the deal he keeps threatening to dismantle—up from 49 percent in August 2016 under Pres. Barack Obama.
Digging just a bit deeper into the polls, however, reveals that most of the public support for the Syria strike comes from a swing in Republican attitudes.
Whereas only 22 percent of Republican voters supported U.S. strikes against Syria when Obama proposed them in 2013, 86 percent of Republicans supported Trump’s decision in 2017. Democratic (37 percent) and Independent (46 percent) support remained tepid, very close to the same levels of support Obama received from these groups in 2013. Trump’s base liked watching the explosions on T.V. although the broader public did not.
In fact, though a majority of the public supports removing Assad from power, only one-third favor using military force to do so.
Even if public support was weak, perhaps the attacks boosted the image of Donald Trump as a strong, decisive leader. One month later, however, Trump’s subsequent interviews, speeches and tweets have squandered whatever patina of strategic leadership he gained from the military strike.
But perhaps not in his mind.
Afghan police at the site of the U.S. GBU-43 air strike in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Resolute Support Headquarters capture
The greatest danger is that Trump has learned the wrong lesson from this moment of glory (and the dropping of the MOAB in Afghanistan) and now believes that bold military strikes—or the threat to do so—will cause North Korea or Iran to cave to U.S. demands. “We could be heading for a major, major conflict with North Korea,” Trump warned in an interview April 27, seemingly relishing the role of a determined military commander.
The problem is that North Korea and Iran would shoot back. “The White House wants to build on Trump’s new appearance of ‘toughness,’” columnist Walter Pincus noted. “Trump wants immediate results and does not appear to recognize, as commander-in-chief, he must consider secondary and tertiary longer-term results that may come from any quick, immediate military decisions.”
Finally, if the strike was designed, as some have speculated, to send a message to Pyongyang and Tehran, the impact has been the opposite of what was intended.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol craft have increased their harassment of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, as if to demonstrate that they are not intimidated. North Korea has increased its war rhetoric and military maneuvers, including massive live fire exercises and videos of nuclear missiles striking U.S. cities and Navy ships.
North Korean media says that the lesson of Iraq, Libya and now Syria is that if you give up your weapons of mass destruction, America will kill you. The air strike on Syria may have made it more difficult to negotiate a freeze of North Korea’s programs.
Brookings Institution analyst Daniel Byman warns of another unintended consequence of launching one small military strike without consideration of a larger strategy. “The dictator or terrorist on the receiving end suffers little but often looks stronger because they survived a U.S. attack and can boast about their defiance,” he says. “We are acting in haste, without making sure that our use of force is serving our political strategy rather than determining it.”
One month after video of cruise missiles streaking from Navy ships riveted television anchors and the public, their lasting impact remains very much in doubt. But that may be lost on the one person whose perceptions and impulses matter the most.
Joseph Cirincione is president and Meghan McCall a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.