WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS/OSAKA – Abandoning his instincts as an impulsive go-it-alone president, U.S. President Donald Trump deliberated at length with his military commanders and worked closely with allies in Europe to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Before unleashing airstrikes with the U.K. and France on Friday night, Trump spent days conducting an intensive review of options and strategies with Pentagon officials and his National Security Council, according to a White House official.
The president discussed possible targets and asked detailed questions about each option. Participants included Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser.
Trump’s handling of the American response to the April 7 chemical attack is emerging as a test of his self-portrayal as a more decisive commander-in-chief than his predecessors.
The coordinated military response also heightened the international legitimacy of the president’s actions and protects him politically at home, where a lone military adventure in the Middle East might well be unpopular. Trump has criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for the war in Iraq.
“The combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power — military, economic and diplomatic,” Trump said in nationally televised remarks.
Criticism of the allied airstrikes was limited.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Saturday that Japan supported the “resolve” of the allied strikes, adding that the government would hold a meeting of its National Security Council on Saturday.
“We support the resolve of the United States, Britain and France not to allow the use of chemical weapons,” Abe told reporters in Osaka.
Government sources had said Friday that Tokyo would avoid expressing direct support for military action against Syria in an attempt to avoid damaging negotiations with Russia over a long-standing territorial dispute. Russia is a major backer of the Assad regime.
French President Emmanuel Macron proved helpful in the planning of the latest Syrian campaign, the U.S. official said. He and Trump spoke repeatedly in the past week.
By working with two other allies, and spending several days consulting with military commanders and leaders in Europe and the Middle East, Trump’s approach differed from the unilateral U.S. missile attack against Syria almost exactly a year ago following another chemical attack blamed on Assad’s forces.
The strategy that unfolded in the past week included a deception in which U.S. Navy warships were maneuvered to persuade the Russians — falsely — that the ships would take part in a strike, the official said.
Syrian television reported that the nation’s air defenses, which are substantial, responded to the attack.
Mattis said there were no reports of U.S. losses in what he described as a heavy but carefully limited assault.
Trump said the U.S. is prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.
“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,” Trump said.
Mattis, however, said the assault was a “one-time shot” so long as Assad does not repeat his use of chemical weapons.
The strikes were carried out by manned aircraft and from ships that launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.
In his nationally televised remarks, Trump took pains to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin for his support of Assad’s regime. Both Trump and, in a later briefing, Mattis went to lengths to call on other countries to join the opposition to Assad. Trump called out Putin for failing to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, as Russia had pledged to do in 2013.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Trump said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran — but maybe not.”
The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, condemned the airstrikes and warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences.”
In the days between the attack in Douma and the U.S.-led response, Washington and Moscow clashed repeatedly in dueling statements and debates.
Moscow denied Assad had any role in the outrage, pushing a variety of alternative theories that peaked with a claim that Britain had staged the event.
The White House said in a statement Friday night that the U.S. had assessed “with confidence” that Assad’s forces were responsible for the April 7 chemical weapons attack in Douma, a Damascus suburb.
“A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin,” the White House said. Dozens of people were killed, including women and children, and hundreds more were injured, according to the statement.
But Mattis disclosed that the U.S. had not yet confirmed that the suspected attack included the use of sarin gas. He said at least one chemical was used — chlorine, which also has legitimate industrial uses and had not previously triggered a U.S. military response.
Mattis said the targets selected by U.S., British and French officials were meant to minimize civilian casualties.
“This is difficult to do in a situation like this,” he said, in light of the volatility of chemical agents.
At a Pentagon news conference alongside Mattis, and with British and French military officers beside them to emphasize allied unity, Gen. Joseph Dunford said the attacks targeted mainly three targets in western Syria.
Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said missiles first struck a scientific research center in the Damascus area that he said was a center of Syrian research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology.
The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs. He said this was believed to be the main site of Syrian sarin and precursor chemical production equipment.
The third target was a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post, also west of Homs, Dunford said.
Dunford said the U.S. did not coordinate targets with or notify the Russian government of the strikes, beyond normal airspace “de-confliction” communications.
Kamran Bokhari, a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington, said the attack “was not geared towards weakening Assad’s conventional military capabilities.”
He added that the strikes appeared intended to avoid provoking Russia. “Russia probably got an assurance that these strikes would only target the CW (chemical weapons) capability of the regime,” he said.
Macron said in a statement that a target of the strikes was the Syrian government’s “clandestine chemical arsenal.”
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons and blasted the allied strikes.
After the strikes, smoke was seen rising from east Damascus and a huge fire to the east. From a distance, U.S. missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder. Syrian media reported that air defenses had hit 13 incoming rockets south of Damascus.
Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.
“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Syria’s presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began.
Immediately after the attack, Syrian state TV, broadcasting live from the landmark Omayyad Square, showed crowds of civilians mixing with men in uniform, including vehicles with flags.
“The aggression is a flagrant violation of international law, a breach of the international community’s will, and it is doomed to fail,” the official SANA news agency said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said in London that the West had tried “every possible” diplomatic means to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. “But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted” by Syria and Russia, she said.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” May said. “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.”
Trump, who evoked the devastating poison gas attacks of World War I, said the U.S. was prepared to “sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” But he called on regional forces to contribute.
“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances. As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home,” Trump added.
Germany, another important European ally, stayed out of the conflict despite U.S. urging, the White House official said. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the use of chemical weapons and cited “very strong evidence” that the Syrian regime had again deployed them, but the country ruled out participating in any military action. At the same time, she made clear that Germany wouldn’t stand in the way of a response by its allies.
Germany should push for a special summit to formulate a joint European Union position on Syria and plans for a peace initiative, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said on Deutschlandfunk radio on Friday. Ischinger said the U.S. and Russia are “behaving irresponsibly. It’s alarming but it’s not a reason to panic.”
Initial reaction to the attack from some Syria experts was positive. The U.S. and allied approach “seems smart and concerted” while representing a “much larger strike than last year,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jamil Jaffer, founder of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, said that Trump, May and Macron were to be “applauded for this strong action.”
The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Trump’s second order to attack Syria. He authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad’s use of sarin gas against civilians.
Mattis estimated the latest air campaign was about twice the size of the 2017 strike. He added that the U.S. expects the Syrian government and its allies to conduct a “significant disinformation campaign,” which the Pentagon would rebut.
The strikes that hit early Saturday in Syria came hours before inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were set to arrive to inspect the site of the apparent attack.
A broader question is whether the allied attacks are part of a revamped, coherent political strategy to end the war on terms that do not leave Assad in power.
The strikes appear to signal Trump’s willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. Just weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to end U.S. involvement in Syria and bring American troops home to focus on the homeland. The participation of British and French forces enables Trump to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.
In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.
“As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home,” Trump said. “And great warriors they are.”
The U.S. has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria as advisers to a makeshift group of anti-Islamic State fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are in eastern Syria, far from Damascus. A U.S.-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 as part of a largely successful effort to break the IS grip on both Syria and Iraq.