The remains of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in Damascus, April 14 (Photo: NEWSCOM)
Beyond its importance in reestablishing some measure of deterrence and degrading the Syrian regime's ability to use such weapons in the future, the aerial assault demonstrated that the United States is capable of striking at will inside the capital of murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad. As a result, it finally puts to rest the absurd notion propagated by the Obama administration and its supporters that the United States couldn't operate in or over Syria because of Assad's top-notch Russian-made air defense systems.
There were also ramifications for the use of social media platforms and their place in public diplomacy. In a week in which Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by Congress for creating the preferred fake news platform for those seeking to fix elections, President Trump turned to Twitter to broadcast his intention to rain down fire and fury on Syria, taunt Assad as a "Gas Killing Animal," and dare Russia to shoot down U.S. missiles.
Twitter came out on top as Trump's nastygram landed on its intended audience. With a single tweet, the president scattered Russia's vessels from its Mediterranean port at Tartous, had Assad's men abandoning their air bases and rapidly relocating air assets near Russian positions, and sent Iran-backed militias, including Hezbollah, scurrying from their posts and hunkering down in safer quarters. America's enemies rightly fear U.S. military power when Trump dons the hat of commander in chief and wields Twitter like a sword.
On a diplomatic level, the days preceding the airstrikes displayed the speed with which Washington can assemble an international coalition in pursuit of a limited military objective. It also punctured the artificially inflated benefits Russia's President Vladimir Putin relies upon to sell membership in his club. For years he has been peddling a myth in the Middle East that he will defend his allies as Washington tosses its own under the bus. Syria is Russia's longest-standing Arab partner, but aside from deploying an army of social media disinformation bots, Putin stood down, even while Washington's commitment to its own allies, such as the Kurds, remains in doubt.
These are all positive developments that went some distance toward reestablishing American credibility when it comes to enforcing red lines. Nevertheless, as the chemical genie now returned to the bottle might say, "Here's the rub." The Obama administration reached an agreement with Russia in 2013 to remove all of Syria's CW, not merely to deter Assad or degrade his ability to use those weapons. It's not even clear today what CW agents President Trump won't tolerate. That leaves the genie with a rather sizable window through which it is bound to escape.
At first glance, it would appear that the use of sarin gas is the issue; it prompted last April's Tomahawk telegram against Assad's al-Shayrat air base after its use in Khan Sheikhoun. But the regime continues to employ other deadly chemicals, such as chlorine. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic found that the regime used chlorine several times around Damascus in the past year and confirmed 29 cases of CW use since Obama and Putin's 2013 agreement. In essence, while Barack Obama's line was drawn in disappearing ink, the confusion over Donald Trump's suggests his own line is pink rather than red.
As far as punitive action is concerned, the Trump administration could have done far more to deter Assad in the future. For instance, the United States could have hit his presidential palace in Damascus on Mount Mezzeh, which is just a stone's throw away from the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that the coalition struck with 76 missiles. The administration could have combined that strike with a message to Putin as well by leveling Assad's summer residence and palace in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, near Russia's Khmeimim air base.
Instead of merely striking at the heart of Assad's CW program, as the Pentagon put it, President Trump could have taken out the rest of the sites associated with CW production, storage, and delivery. He could have further hindered Assad's ability to slaughter the Syrian people by cratering his runways and airfields, destroying his air assets, and targeting what remains of his Soviet-era air defense systems. Of course, such a plan would necessitate the tactical element of surprise to catch Assad's aircraft in their hangars before they were repositioned near Russian assets. That would rule out early-morning Twitter rants that spell out martial stratagems. Such a target set would further degrade the regime's military capabilities.
The bottom line is that the Trump administration's decision to strike Assad's assets in Syria was the minimum tactical military response the Pentagon put on the table. If it punishes Assad, discourages him from further CW attacks, or degrades his ability to do so should he become insufficiently deterred, then it is a positive development for human civilization and represents a positive result of limited U.S. military action. The next step in Syria is finishing the job against ISIS, recognizing the conventional military threat Iran poses there, and pivoting to the prevention of additional gains by the Islamic Republic in place of the Islamic State. Achieving that with the withdrawal of U.S. forces might be a wish left for another genie.