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Expert View: What Prompted the First U.S. Military Strike Against Assad?

Syria Deeply speaks with experts in our community to understand President Donald Trump’s decision to carry out the first U.S. military strike against the Syrian government.

Written by Kim Bode, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The body of a plane burned as a result of the U.S. missile strike on an air base in Syria. Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik

Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base on Thursday night, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked members of our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. As part of this series, we asked experts why, after seven years of war in Syria, the U.S. decided to carry out the first military strike against the Assad regime.

Rami G. Khouri, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut: I think it was very clear. I think it was the gravity of the chemical attack and the credible revulsion that people felt all over the region and all over the world. This combined with the critical need for Trump to show he’s a tough guy who can kick ass. The combination of these two things provided him with the opening to do this. He informed the Russians, the Russians got out of the way and he bombed a bunch of buildings, essentially making a statement but not making a significant change in the military balance on the ground in Syria.

Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: American officials have consistently stated that the strikes do not indicate a policy change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that the priority for the U.S. is still a coalition to fight the Islamic State.

I think there are several reasons for the decision to strike against the regime this time. The main reason seems to be to show there is a new sheriff in town, and that the Trump administration’s approach will not be an extension of that of the previous administration. President Trump’s decision was in stark contrast to the one by President Obama in 2013. For many Syrians, even those who know the strikes were a one-off act, this at least shows that it is possible that the new leadership in Washington can break away from the depressing norms established by the former one.

Also, two days before the strikes, the secretary of state issued a terse statement in response to North Korea’s missile test. The statement was deliberately vague, suggesting Washington would act rather than talk about acting. The strikes in Syria was designed to bolster the credibility of American preparedness to act, thus deterring adversaries throughout the world. A third reason, in my opinion, is that the U.S. seeks to deter any regime’s escalation as American troops head to Syria to expel ISIS from Raqqa. There have been indications that Damascus and its allies want to complicate the effort in Raqqa, presumably to extract American concessions in favor of the regime.

Karim Makdisi, associate professor of international politics and director of the Public Policy and International Affairs Program at the American University of Beirut: I think that this was not a particularly thought-out plan. The business of the fallout really depends on what happens in the next few days. Trump wanted to portray himself to be unlike Obama; he wanted to show he is a tough man. That was the main reason, certainly not because he was so concerned [about the] babies.

This is the same person who didn’t allow Syrians into the country, who didn’t have a problem with the Yemeni babies being killed in the U.S. attack a few weeks ago. It’s domestic politics more than anything. Trump was able to show he’s not fully attached to Russia because he’s going against them. It will be interesting to find out to what extent the Russians were informed. To find out how much this is being stage-managed on both sides, to show that Trump is not a Russian puppet. And to see how this will affect [the U.S. and Russian] cooperation on this war. Is it a one-off thing or shift in policy? We don’t know.

The U.S. will be under pressure to do this again, [the Assad regime] will do other things that are high-profile and Trump will be put under pressure to react to this. The Syrian armed groups need to make sure [the war] gets reframed, and their supporters in the West, [considering] where the political settlement was heading. This has at least put a big pause on it, otherwise some kind of deal favoring the Syrian government would’ve happened. If it’s a shift [in U.S. policy], it would be extraordinary, because it’s very difficult to change strategy just like that. That’s why I don’t think it’s strategy.

Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: It’s a guessing game. It’s very clear that this is a president that did not want to engage in this sort of activity. And this is an administration that has been given an alternative, namely an Assad regime where the Russians can deliver some kind of predictable behavior, not only in terms of engagement in the Geneva process, even tangentially in Astana with the Turks and Iranians, but also in terms of what kind of tactics they use on the battlefield. I’m confident that you would have a kind of administration that would just let things go and take advantage of the opportunities to de-escalate the violence. But that sits against the backdrop of a new administration that is in some ways far more assertive and also that wants to separate itself from the legacy of Obama’s not so much mismanagement, but the challenges he faced with crafting and then sticking to a set of presumed red lines in Syria. I think they are very conscious that the danger here is to escalate the war. This is not meant to be the precursor for a much larger, much more focused and much more complex set of U.S. military interventions.

Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: Clearly having a different administration. But what I interpreted in listening to the president, to Donald Trump, is that he was shown some of the video of the aftermath of the chemical attack and it seemed as if they genuinely affected him. I think he’s not someone with foreign policy experience prior to being president. And what he has known of Syria until now has been told to him, he has read it. It’s been through the lens of ISIS and I’m not sure that he really grasped what was happening in Syria. Maybe he had heard it in words, that there are civilians being hit – but I don’t think it really hit him until seeing those videos and seeing the actual impact. I got the impression that he was genuinely moved by them. That’s my interpretation of what shifted. I could be wrong. I think it was a little bit of the reality, finally struck him.

Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver: I think this much more has to do with the personal idiosyncrasies of the current president of the United States who wants to demonstrate that he is a tough guy on the international stage and also, I think, from a cynical perspective, it has to do with the current internal political crises in the United States that Donald Trump is facing with the various scandals that he has created for himself, largely with respect to claims of wire-tapping on behalf of the Obama administration, his [alleged] close ties with Russia, his dropping opinion poll numbers.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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