US, UK, and France Bomb Syria to Send Some Sort of Message about Chemical Weapons

There is no obvious strategy and even the expressed rationale makes no sense.

The long-anticipated symbolic military response to the latest Syrian chemical weapons attack has happened.

NYT (“U.S., Britain and France Strike Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack“):

The United States and European allies launched airstrikes on Friday night against Syrian research, storage and military targets as President Trump sought to punish President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical attack near Damascus last weekend that killed more than 40 people.

Britain and France joined the United States in the strikes in a coordinated operation that was intended to show Western resolve in the face of what the leaders of the three nations called persistent violations of international law. Mr. Trump characterized it as the beginning of a sustained effort to force Mr. Assad to stop using banned weapons, but only ordered a limited, one-night operation that hit three targets.

“These are not the actions of a man,” Mr. Trump said of last weekend’s attack in a televised address from the White House Diplomatic Room. “They are crimes of a monster instead.”

Shortly after the attack, the Syrian presidency posted on Twitter, “Honorable souls cannot be humiliated.”

The strikes risked pulling the United States deeper into the complex, multisided war in Syria and raised the possibility of confrontation with Russia and Iran, both of which were supporting Mr. Assad with military forces. Within 90 minutes, the Russian ambassador to the United States warned of “consequences” for the allied attacks.

While Mr. Trump vowed as recently as last week to pull American troops out of Syria, he said he would remain committed to the goal of preventing further chemical attacks.

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he said.

But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had urged caution in White House deliberations leading up to the strike, told reporters on Friday night that there were no more attacks planned unless Mr. Assad again uses gas on his own people.

“We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets,” Mr. Mattis said. “We were not out to expand this; we were very precise and proportionate. But at the same time, it was a heavy strike.”

The assault was twice the size and hit two more targets than a strike that Mr. Trump ordered last year against a Syrian military airfield. Launched from warplanes and naval destroyers, the burst of missiles and bombs struck Syria shortly after 4 a.m. local time on Saturday.

They hit three of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons facilities: a scientific research center in greater Damascus that was used in the production of weapons, and two chemical weapons facilities west of Homs, one of which was used for the production of the nerve agent sarin and the other was part of a military command post, said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

WaPo (“U.S. launches missile strikes in Syria“):

President Trump ordered a military attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, joining allies Britain and France in launching missile strikes in retaliation for what Western nations said was the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians.

The coordinated strike marked the second time in a little over a year that Trump has used force against Assad, who U.S. officials believe has continued to test the West’s willingness to accept gruesome chemical attacks.

Trump, speaking from the White House late Friday, said the attack last weekend was “a significant escalation” of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and warranted a stepped-up international response. Russia, the Syrian regime’s most powerful ally, harshly criticized the airstrikes but did not respond militarily.

[…]

Dunford said that unlike the unilateral U.S. strike in Syria last year, in which only one site was attacked, the United States worked with two allies and hit the three sites in an operation that he said would result in the long-term degradation of Syria’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons.

The attack involved munitions fired from aircraft and naval vessels, including about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The Pentagon also employed the B-1 strategic bomber.

The assault came despite the lack of a definitive independent finding that chemical weapons were used or who had deployed them. An initial team of inspectors had only arrived in Syria on Friday.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declined to say whether he thought the attack would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

“Nothing is certain in these kinds of matters. However, we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year,” he said. “It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets.”

As of 6:52 Saturday morning there is shockingly no reference to this action on the White House website. NYT has a transcript of President Trump’s televised remarks. They open:

My fellow Americans. A short time ago, I ordered the United States armed forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. A combined operation with the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom is now underway. We thank them both.

Tonight, I want to speak with you about why we have taken this action. One year ago, Assad launched a savage chemical weapons attack against his own innocent people. The United States responded with 58 missile strikes that destroyed 20 percent of the Syrian air force.

Last Saturday, the Assad regime again deployed chemical weapons to slaughter innocent civilians, this time in the town of Douma near the Syrian capital of Damascus. This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons used by that very terrible regime.

The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.

Following the horrors of World War I a century ago, civilized nations joined together to ban chemical warfare. Chemical weapons are uniquely dangerous, not only because they inflict gruesome suffering, but because even small amounts can unleash widespread devastation.

The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States.

The combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power: military, economic and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.

I also have a message tonight for the two governments most responsible for supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Assad regime.

To Iran and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children? The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement begins thusly:

This evening I have authorised British armed forces to conduct co-ordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their use.

We are acting together with our American and French allies.

In Douma, last Saturday a chemical weapons attack killed up to 75 people, including young children, in circumstances of pure horror.

The fact of this attack should surprise no-one.

The Syrian Regime has a history of using chemical weapons against its own people in the most cruel and abhorrent way.

And a significant body of information including intelligence indicates the Syrian Regime is responsible for this latest attack.

This persistent pattern of behaviour must be stopped – not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons.

We have sought to use every possible diplomatic channel to achieve this.

But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted. Even this week the Russians vetoed a Resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack.

So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime.

This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.

It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

And while this action is specifically about deterring the Syrian Regime, it will also send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.

So, the three most powerful NATO allies struck some tertiary targets in order to “show Western resolve in the face of . . . persistent violations of international law.” Assad is a “monster,” not a man, but we’re not seeking regime change. It’s a military strike that’s much bigger than the previous strike, yet is somehow not going to “escalate tensions” even though we may or may not sustain this campaign with further strikes, presumably of an escalatory nature. That’s rather confusing.

Even if the strategy was somehow coherent, the aim makes little sense.

Trump’s assertion that “Chemical weapons are uniquely dangerous, not only because they inflict gruesome suffering, but because even small amounts can unleash widespread devastation” is rather bizarre. It is true that they can “inflict gruesome suffering.” But they’re hardly “uniquely dangerous.” And it’s flat-out untrue that “even small amounts can unleash widespread devastation.”

While they’re usually included in the category “weapons of mass destruction,” most knowledgeable observers think that a misnomer. As one primer on the subject puts it, they’re “not as dangerous as biological weapons due to the inefficiency, the need for significant amount of the chemical, and as it relates to a lower number of casualties. . . . a chemical attack would have to have a very sophisticated delivery system in order to have a significant effect.” Another observes “they are militarily more akin to conventional arms than to nuclear or biological weapons.” It continues, “Even extended use of chemical weapons had no decisive impact on outcome of wars, had only local success, and made wars uncomfortable, to no purpose. For this and other reasons it is difficult to see why they are around in the first place. ”

Indeed, the very incident that sparked this response demonstrates this premise. It was among the most deadly chemical attacks in a war which has seen widespread use of these weapons. It killed 75 people.

This war has been going on just over eight years. It has killed some half million people, mostly civilians. That’s roughly 171 people on average a day. So, the Douma attack, horrendous as it was, accounted for roughly 10 hours’ worth of the killing in this awful war. And, since we’re using air strikes as our tool, there’s a very good chance we killed more than 75 people in sending this message. Indeed, since we were targeting chemical facilities, we might well well have unleashed enough chemical weapons to kill more than 75 people.

But at least we’re doing something.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I disagree, I think it was brilliant.

    1) We all know that if you’re a 10 year-old child, for example, you’d much prefer to be blown apart by high explosives than be killed with poison gas. Killing kids with gas: monstrous! Killing kids with HE, meh.

    2) No Russians were harmed, or even seriously upset, by our use of the new ‘smart’ Kabuki Bombs. We blowed some stuff up real good, Putin pretends to give a sh!t and Trump can pretend he’s not a Kremlin bootlick.

    3) The new strategy of being even more feckless and confused than previous administrations, will advance us rapidly toward our goal of [to be supplied at a later time.]

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  2. Jc says:

    So we bomb without even confirming who did the chem attack? A chem attack occurs after prez says he is going to pull out of Syria? Who wants us to stay in Syria? Strange. Also occurs in bad week for Prez…

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  3. Scott says:

    The problem is is that we are trying to make rationale sense out of strategy that is driven by feelings and emotions. This President has no logical thought patterns. He brags about working from his gut. So chemical weapons feel terrible, therefore we must do something about it. It doesn’t have to make rationale, logical sense.

    Watching Sec Mattis and Gen Dunford yesterday was a little painful. You could see them struggle to explain much beyond the mechanics of the attack. That’s because they are logical, rational military men. That is also why we have such trouble thinking this through.

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  4. @michael reynolds:

    I see what you did there.

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  5. Mikey says:

    Yesterday morning on Fox and Friends:

    On Friday morning, Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt suggested that military strikes in Syria could be useful to divert attention from the unflattering portrayal of President Trump contained in former FBI Director James Comey’s book.

    “If the president, and France, and the U.K decide to strike Syria, don’t you think that story would be a bigger story than Comey’s book that’s released on Tuesday?” she said.

    You know Trump was watching.

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  6. TM01 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: what did he do?
    Continue to spew his irrational, infantile “Trump is a Putin Puppet” nonsense again?

    Because no one saw that coming.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Jc: @Scott: @Mikey: The problem with Trump-centric explanations for the strike is that Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron at least went along. I can’t imagine they’d commit miitary forces to divert attention from Trump’s scandal of the day or to soothe his emotionalism.

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  8. Kathy says:

    While chemical weapons have effects absent from other types of weapons, I agree that being killed by poison gas and being killed by a bomb makes no essential difference.

    Taking this into account, shouldn’t someone retaliate against the US, Britain and others for their wanton killings in Iraq?

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Don’t just do something, sit there.

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  10. JohnMcC says:

    It has always (which in my case is a pretty long time) completely gobsmacked me how modern weapons can be thought of as a means of communicating some message. The destruction that just one of those things visits is just so frigging ABSOLUTE that destruction itself is the only damn message they can deliver. I remember being speechless with enraged confusion trying to express how the ‘bombing pauses’ of VietNam made me feel. I could practically hear the footprints of the Vietnamese carrying 122mm rockets down the HoChiMinh trail while the US was ‘responding to world pressure’ or some damn thing.

    If we gave a damn about chemical weapons, why did we know where to target the missiles Friday night? Because we had to know before the strike where the gas was made and/or stored. What were we doing last week and the previous weeks?

    Meaningless and dangerous posturing.

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  11. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    May and Macron had already decided to take steps while Trump was still fan dancing, hadn’t they?

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  12. teve tory says:

    Donald J. Trump

    Verified account

    @realDonaldTrump

    The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!

    4:02 PM – 30 Aug 2013

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  13. teve tory says:

    Donald J. Trump

    Verified account

    @realDonaldTrump

    What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.

    11:14 AM – 29 Aug 2013

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  14. Scott says:

    @James Joyner: Yes, that is true. I forget, sometimes, that the US is not the center of the universe. And I don’t understand the politics of either the UK or France.

    On a different topic, I have a different question. Is Syria the only sovereign country where we have semi permanent armed forces established without the permission of the recognized government? In Iraq and Afghanistan, at least, we have permission documented by agreements but Syria? Seems shaky legally.

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  15. Terrye Cravens says:

    @James Joyner: May was responding to the poisoning of the ex spy and his daughter in London as well as this gas attack in Syria. Macron wanted to look strong. I think Trump saw it as an opportunity to divert attention from domestic scandals and look Presidential. In this case the allies were giving each other cover and support.

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  16. Mu says:

    $100 M ordinance used that needs to be replaced by donor companies.
    Careful coordination with the target nation ensured minimal risk of accidental losses and led to $ 1 M of property improvements in Syria and great moral boost for Assad.
    Telegenic launch pictures.
    No wonder the Donald calls it a success.

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  17. Charon says:

    @Mikey:

    “If the president, and France, and the U.K decide to strike Syria, don’t you think that story would be a bigger story than Comey’s book that’s released on Tuesday?” she said.

    A bit more than a one-day story that will be forgotten once the Sunday talk shows are past (not that the Comey book story will last all that long).

    @James Joyner:

    I can’t imagine they’d commit miitary forces to divert attention from Trump’s scandal of the day or to soothe his emotionalism.

    They had other reasons too, but currying favor with Donald would be a plus.

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  18. teve tory says:

    Donald J. Trump

    Verified account

    Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.

    2:39 PM – 9 Oct 2012

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  19. Slugger says:

    The regime of Bashar al-Assad has been fighting for seven years against a mixed bag of opponents mostly Sunni based. The regime is backed by Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. The Sunni forces are backed by Saudi Arabia and the USA. Assad has achieved control and is close to total victory. Have these missiles changed this war in any way, or will the Syrian government see them as merely a bit more destruction in the midst of the destruction of the last seven years? Leaders of countries at war don’t seem to change course when a few things are blown up.
    I see Trump just tweeted, “Mission Accomplished.” Does he actually not realize that the Bush image in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner is taken as sad, bitter irony by people who love America?

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  20. Charon says:

    @Slugger:

    I see Trump just tweeted, “Mission Accomplished.” Does he actually not realize that the Bush image in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner is taken as sad, bitter irony by people who love America?

    No. SATSQ.

    This is not a very bright guy.

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  21. Mister Bluster says:

    Does he actually not realize that the Bush image in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner is taken as sad, bitter irony by people who love America?

    The only thing Donald Trump realizes is Donald Trump.
    The dope probably thinks that Bush stole the slogan from him.

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  22. Hal_10000 says:

    Well, they said if I voted for Clinton, we’d be going to war with Syria and they were right!

    In all seriousness, the one silver lining with Trump was that I hoped he would keep us out of stupid military conflicts. I mean, it wasn’t much of a hope. He’s alway been a lying idiot. But … at least there was some hope.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    This was a weaker strike than I would have liked, but we brought some of our allies along, so there’s that — more countries are now in a spot where they have to respond if Assad uses chemical weapons again, and this might give him a reason to hesitate.

    If we are serious about keeping chemical weapons from being routinely used, we need to make it hurt the people who use them more than just a loss of capacity to use chemical weapons. We need to make the cost of using chemical weapons far higher than any strategic or tactical advantages gained by using them. A hard hit against command infrastructure and Assad’s assets would have put the cost closer to the people who made the decisions to use chemical weapons.

    That is if we are serious about keeping chemical weapons from being routinely used. The argument that we have conventional weapons that are now more deadly than chemical weapons has some merit.

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  24. Gustopher says:

    James quotes:

    “Even extended use of chemical weapons had no decisive impact on outcome of wars, had only local success, and made wars uncomfortable, to no purpose. For this and other reasons it is difficult to see why they are around in the first place.”

    We haven’t had any long term use of chemical weapons used against soldiers in a war since WW I, have we? We poisoned the crap out of Vietnam with Agent Orange, but that was aimed at the trees.

    Modern use seems to be aimed at civilians as often as not — cause indiscriminate, awful destruction, and keep them in fear. Aim at disloyal villages and suburbs, as a warning to others to keep in line.

    It’s more effective than bombing because it creates more terror.

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  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Gas is a terror weapon, but also useful for killing people hiding in basements – often women and children.

    We’d be on firmer moral footing had the RAF at Hamburg and the RAF and the USAAF at Dresden, and then the USAAF in Japan, not used firestorm techniques to suck all the oxygen out of basements where women and children were hiding. Good, old-fashioned 500 and 1000 pound dumb bombs.

    Calling gas a weapon of mass destruction is nonsense. You can kill a hell of a lot more people with a daisy-cutter bomb, which is conventional. And Assad has killed most of his victims with HE or artillery fire. The effect of this gas obsession is to lessen the horror of killing children with HE or starvation. But it was useful to conflate gas with nukes and bio-weapons, the true weapons of mass destruction, when we went after Saddam.

    This is a civil war with religious roots. There’s nothing nastier than a quasi-religious civil war. Either we should do something (depose Assad and occupy Syria for a couple of decades), or cut the b.s. and admit we’re doing nothing. This ‘message sending’ is nothing but virtue signaling with bombs.

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  26. An Interested Party says:

    @TM01: You poor thing…you really should do a better job of keeping yourself informed of the latest news before you question anyone else’s “nonsense”…

    In all seriousness, the one silver lining with Trump was that I hoped he would keep us out of stupid military conflicts.

    It’s usually foolish to ever expect any silver lining involving this sleazy idiot…on the other hand, the silver lining of his election will be the Democratic surge in November…that party might very well be in bad shape if Hillary were president now…

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  27. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I find it ironic to see the same people that obsess over people killed with guns vice other methods—suddenly profess that they are ambivalent to whether civilians are chemically choked to death or blown up. Telling….

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  28. Mikey says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Well, actually, it’s the President who’s doing that. Syrian government forces have been slaughtering civilians wholesale for years with little overt response from America, but the moment they’re even suspected of employing chemical weapons, the cruise missiles start flying.

    Also, we focus on guns because guns are the only large-scale killer in America about which we’re doing nothing. Thousands of people die in car crashes every year! Yes, but we have worked to improve automobile safety so much that the death rate has dropped 80% in the past 40 years. We have licensing for drivers and seat-belt laws and crumple zones and a hundred other measures, but for guns, we’ve done nothing. We pump billions of tax dollars into cancer research, but we’re not even allowed to spend a cent of tax money on gun safety research.

    We take innumerable measures to improve safety and security in our public and private lives, except for guns. So it’s not a matter of caring about guns vs. other methods, it’s a matter of caring about guns at all.

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  29. michael reynolds says:

    @TM01:
    You were saying. . .?

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