The Trump administration is declaring victory after striking three Syrian government chemical weapons sites. But the White House hasn’t learned the lessons of last year’s “pinprick” strikes on the Assad regime. Unless some sort of accountability is imposed on the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people in the cruelest and most illegal of ways is sure to continue apace.
“Mission Accomplished!” Trump tweeted Saturday morning, praising what he called a “perfectly executed strike” on the Assad regime conducted jointly with the French and British militaries. Tactically, it did seem successful enough. Syria’s oft-exaggerated air defense capabilities turned out to be impotent. Russia’s threats to retaliate proved empty. No allied assets were lost.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the strike objective was to significantly degrade the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter Assad from using them again. If history is any guide, Assad is adept at hiding his chemical weapons and using them again when the international spotlight fades.
The justification for the strike, according to Mattis, was to enforce international norms and laws regarding the use of chemical weapons, which he said was a vital U.S. national security interest. But even if the mission is narrowly defined as stopping what Trump called the “crimes of a monster,” the strikes probably won’t achieve that goal.
Only a few miles from Douma, Assad has been running a torture and killing factory that former State Department ambassador-at-large for war crimes Stephen Rapp called the worst “machinery of cruel death” since the Nazis. A brave Syrian defector code named “Caesar” brought hard evidence out of Syria documenting Assad’s torture and murder of thousands of civilians in custody. He said 150,000 Syrians still linger in Assad’s jails.
Last year, Trump’s State Department confirmed the Syrian regime was operating a crematorium to cover up the extent of Assad’s mass atrocities. Assad has been using a siege to starve civilians in East Ghouta for years. Regime artillery shelling alone has killed thousands of innocents. Russia has bombed hospitals and targeted civilians from the air.
All these atrocities are violations of international norms and laws that the world shouldn’t tolerate. But they are continuing.
This is not an argument for more strikes. Pinprick strikes, as Republicans argued during the Obama administration, carry high risk and low rewards. Larger strikes increase that risk without any assurance they will have the desired effect.
Just before he was fired, H.R. McMaster gave a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In it, he said, “All civilized nations must hold Iran and Russia accountable for their role in enabling atrocities and perpetuating human suffering in Syria.”
What the Trump administration must do, in cooperation with Congress, is to apply several other tools at its disposal to stop Assad’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to impose justice and accountability for the perpetrators.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for The Washington Post.