U.S. commanders and Pentagon strategists tried Monday to shift their focus back to the fight against the Islamic State group after a White House-ordered attack against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, insisting the one-time strike to punish the use of chemical weapons by Damascus had not drawn the U.S. deeper into Syria’s 6-year-old civil war.
The naval bombardment of the Shayrat air base in western Syria on Friday stoked fears and questions inside Washington and beyond over the Trump administration’s latest red line against Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, and how it would affect Mr. Trump’s long-declared priority of defeating the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. The attack marked the first time U.S. forces directly engaged Mr. Assad’s forces since beginning operations in the country two years ago.
“Immediate strikes do not preclude a more robust strategy” against the Assad regime by the Trump administration. “In fact, they open the door to it,” said Jennifer Cafarella, the lead intelligence planner at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
U.S. Central Command officials insisted Monday that the 59 Tomahawk missiles delivered by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers into the Shayrat airfield were “a one-off strike” specifically ordered as retaliation for a regime-led chemical attack against anti-government forces in northern Syria’s Idlib province. The Idlib attack, in which U.S. officials say munitions armed with sarin nerve gas were dropped on rebel targets, killed more than 80 people, including 11 children.
“It is not the position of CENTCOM or the United States to take action in the civil war going on with Assad in Syria,” CENTCOM spokesman Col. John Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon during a teleconference from command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
“Our main fight is against ISIS, and we are primarily focused on that fight,” Col. Thomas said. There has been no policy change for current or future Syrian operations since the al Shayrat strike, as far as continued targeting of Mr. Assad’s forces in the country, he said.
But analysts note that the enemy also gets a vote, and the White House and Pentagon have yet to declare definitively what they would do if Mr. Assad launched another chemical attack or even an attack with conventional weapons that resulted in a larger death toll than the Idlib sortie. Mr. Trump’s hopes of working with Russia in the campaign against the Islamic State have also been put into serious doubt by the attack on the Kremlin’s main ally in the region.
The Trump administration appeared to up the ante with Moscow on Monday, with a senior official telling The Associated Press that the U.S. believes Russia knew in advance about the Idlib chemical weapon attack and apparently did nothing to stop it. There is no evidence of direct Russian involvement in the attack, but a Russian-operated drone was tracked flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment, the official told the news wires.
The Trump administration was reported to have upped the ante with Moscow on Monday, when The Associated Press cited a “senior official” as saying the U.S. believes Russia knew in advance about the Idlib chemical weapon attack and apparently did nothing to stop it.
There is no evidence of direct Russian involvement in the attack, but a Russian-operated drone was tracked flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment, the official told the news wires.
The White House pushed back against the report Monday evening, saying the issue was still open.
“At this time, there is no U.S. intelligence community consensus that Russia had foreknowledge of the Syrian chemical attack,” a senior administration official said.
At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer tried repeatedly to separate the Shayrat strike from the mission of defeating the Islamic State. But the White House also seemed to suggest that the U.S. mission had subtly expanded, with Mr. Assad’s removal from power now a prerequisite to Syria’s long-term stability after the terrorist group’s defeat.
“Our No. 1 priority is to defeat ISIS, but we’re also, I think from a humanitarian standpoint and a refugee standpoint, ensuring that we create an environment” in Syria that does not pose a threat to U.S. interests, Mr. Spicer said.
“I think right now the focus is twofold. One is defeating ISIS and the second is creating the political environment necessary for the Syrian people to have a new leadership there,” he said. “I can’t imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power.”
But asked if it was possible to defeat the Islamic State with Mr. Assad in power, Mr. Spicer replied, “Yes, sure.”
At the Defense Department, Col. Thomas said any efforts to deal with the Assad regime and its Russian allies were now being handled by the U.S. intelligence community, not the Pentagon.
Mr. Spicer did not rule out more U.S. strikes on Mr. Assad’s forces if Damascus uses chemical weapons again, but he had to correct his language later in the day.
“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Mr. Spicer asserted at his daily briefing. In a clarification, the White House said the use of barrel bombs — which Mr. Assad deploys frequently against his enemies and do not necessarily include chemical weapons — would not automatically trigger a U.S. attack.
Analysts said it will be hard to keep separate the Islamic State fight and the clash with Mr. Assad even if Mr. Trump and his aides say the missile strike was sharply targeted against the use of chemical weapons.
“Deterrence is a persistent condition, not a one-hour strike package,” said Christopher Kozak, a senior Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. The president “has demonstrated his intent and capability to use American force if necessary. He must sustain pressure against Assad in order to set conditions to achieve vital U.S. national security interests in Syria.”
‘A measured response’
The Pentagon and White House also found themselves on the defensive Monday over claims that the U.S. attack had not put a measurable dent in Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons capability despite the Tomahawk cruise missile barrage.
Images of Syrian aircraft taking off from the Shayrat airfield over the weekend were broadcast over regional news outlets.
The activity on the base, which U.S. intelligence claims was the launching point for the Idlib chemical attack, so soon after the American strike called into question the effectiveness of the attack.
Defense Secretary James Mattis defended the impact, calling it “a measured response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.”
Damascus “has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield,” demonstrating that “the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons,” the Pentagon chief added in a statement.
While U.S. forces targeted aircraft, fuel depots, logistics and munitions hubs inside the Shayrat base, they avoided destroying its airfield and facilities known to be storing active chemical weapons.
But leaving a functional airfield and chemical weapon stockpiles intact did not mean Mr. Assad’s ability to conduct additional chemical strikes was not deterred, said Central Command’s Col. Thomas.
“Our task was to strike a base that was directly related to the [Idlib] chemical weapons attack,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “Our goal was not to destroy the airfield. That was not the kind of attack and those were not the kind of weapons we would employ” if that had been the objective.