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Seven takeaways from airstrikes on Syria


The United States, in coordination with France and Britain, carried out a series of predawn airstrikes on Saturday in Syria in response to what it said was a chemical weapons attack this month in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma.

The strikes were the latest development in a long-running and complex conflict with consequences far beyond Syria itself – including in the United States, Iran, Russia and other parts of Europe.

Here are seven takeaways from the airstrikes and their aftermath:

• The Strikes Were Intense but Restrained

The United States and its allies tried to walk a fine line with the airstrikes, sending a strong message to President Bashar Assad of Syria without provoking a military response from Russia and Iran, Assad’s two strongest allies.

The operation on Saturday was more powerful than an airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump last year – this time there were three targets, rather than one, employing twice as many weapons. But it was limited to one night, at least for the moment; was specifically aimed at chemical weapons facilities’ and steered clear of Russian soldiers and bases.

“Right now this is a one-time shot, and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing it again,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of Assad, although Trump suggested there might be more to come. “We are prepared to sustain this response,” he said, until Syria abandons its use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. Chose Not to Wait
The United States and its allies went ahead with the airstrikes in the face of several developments that suggested they could be delayed.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were expected to arrive in Douma, Syria, on Saturday to investigate the attack last weekend.

Mattis was working to slow the move toward a military response, concerned that a missile strike could spark a wider conflict between Russia, Iran and the West.

And Trump sent mixed signals about timing. On Wednesday, he warned Russia on Twitter that missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” But the next day, he added: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

At a news conference on Saturday morning, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said that the strikes had been “the right thing to do,” in part for the “operational security” of those carrying them out.

• Assad Absorbed Another Blow

The airstrikes sent an unambiguous message to Assad, and it was not clear that it would change his thinking. He remained firmly in power thanks to the support of Russia and Iran.

Assad has essentially been under siege since the Syrian civil war began more than seven years ago. In that time, he has dealt with the war, airstrikes, sanctions, Islamic State militants, a variety of rebel groups and a crumbling economy.

As Syrian state media reported that many of the missiles had been intercepted, the Syrian presidency’s Twitter account posted a video that appeared to show Assad showing up for just another day at the office.

The events depicted could not be independently verified.
• Capitol Hill Remained Divided

The reaction in Washington was divided along party lines, with the strikes bringing praise from Republicans and criticism from Democrats.

“The Butcher of Damascus learned two lessons tonight the hard way,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a statement. “Weapons of mass destruction won’t create a military advantage once the United States is done with you and Russia cannot protect its clients from the United States.”

Sen.Tim Kaine, D-Va., complained that Trump had not sought permission from Congress. Proceeding with the strikes, he said, was “illegal and – absent a broader strategy – it’s reckless.”

Russia Responded With Angry Rhetoric, So Far

Russia has called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, and offered some harsh warnings before the attack. But the speed and the tone of the Russian reaction on Saturday, stressing that the attack had not resulted in a direct confrontation and was rather limited, suggested almost relief on the part of the Kremlin.

According to Russian state news media, President Vladimir Putin condemned the missile strikes as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” and against the United Nations Charter.

• Britain’s Leader Avoided a Conflict at Home

May has said she believed there was a need to send a strong message about the use of chemical weapons, but she also had compelling diplomatic and political reasons to support the United States – and to carry out the strikes as soon as possible.

One imperative was the desire to reciprocate the support London has received from the United States in the dispute with Russia over the poisoning of a former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia S. Skripal, on British soil.

May, who made an explicit connection between the airstrikes in Syria and the poisoning of the Skripals, benefited from the timing of the airstrikes, two days before lawmakers were to return from vacation. While not obligated to consult Parliament, she may have felt constrained to do so and could easily have lost a vote on a strike, as her predecessor David Cameron did in 2013.

Britain also wants to prove its use as an ally to Trump at a time when its international influence is under question because of its withdrawal from the European Union, and when it hopes to strengthen trade ties with the United States.

• France Saw a Chance to Act After a Red Line Was Crossed

President Emmanuel Macron had prepared his nation for this moment: He had discussed the possibility of airstrikes and made clear early in his presidency that the use of chemical weapons was a red line.

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