The Trump administration is declaring victory after striking three Syrian government chemical weapons sites. But the White House hasn’t learned the lessons of last year’s “pinprick” strikes on the Assad regime. Unless some sort of accountability is imposed on the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people in the cruelest and most illegal of ways is sure to continue apace.
“Mission Accomplished!” Trump tweeted this morning, praising what he called a “perfectly executed strike” on the Assad regime conducted jointly with the French and British militaries. Tactically, it did seem successful enough. Syria’s oft-exaggerated air defense capabilities turned out to be impotent. Russia’s threats to retaliate proved empty. No allied assets were lost.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the strike objective was to significantly degrade the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter Assad from using them again. It’s much too early to tell whether either objective was fulfilled. But if history is any guide, Assad is adept at hiding his chemical weapons and using them again when the international spotlight fades.
The justification for the strike, according to Mattis, was to enforce international norms and laws regarding the use of chemical weapons, which he said was a vital U.S. national security interest. No Trump administration official in the past 24 hours has articulated how these strikes fit into a larger Syria diplomatic or political strategy. Likely, there is none. But even if the mission is narrowly defined as stopping what Trump called the “crimes of a monster,” the strikes probably won’t achieve that goal.
No Trump administration official has said anything — yesterday or today — about Assad’s other mass atrocities, his war crimes or his crimes against humanity. The clear message to Assad is that he is free to keep killing his people by any non-chemical means.
Only a few miles from Douma, Assad has been running a torture and killing factory that former State Department ambassador-at-large for war crimes Stephen Rapp called the worst “machinery of cruel death” since the Nazis. A brave Syrian defector code named “Caesar” brought hard evidence out of Syria documenting Assad’s torture and murder of thousands of civilians in custody. He said 150,000 Syrians still linger in Assad’s jails.
Last year, Trump’s State Department confirmed the Syrian regime was operating a crematorium to cover up the extent of Assad’s mass atrocities. Assad has been using a siege to starve civilians in East Ghouta for years. Regime artillery shelling alone has killed thousands of innocents. Russia has bombed hospitals and targeted civilians from the air.
All these atrocities are violations of international norms and laws that the world shouldn’t tolerate. But they are continuing.
“For too long, the international community has stood on the sidelines as Assad’s forces gassed, starved and bombed civilians. Red lines went unenforced. War crimes went undeterred,” Fadel Abdul Ghany of the Syrian Network for Human Rights said today. “Today, we are hopeful that this shameful period of inaction ends, and a new era of civilian protection begins.”
This is not an argument for more strikes. Pinprick strikes, as Republicans argued during the Obama administration, carry high risk and low rewards. Larger strikes increase that risk without any assurance they will have the desired effect.
What the Trump administration must do, in cooperation with Congress, is to apply several other tools at its disposal to stop Assad’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to impose justice and accountability for the perpetrators.
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators tried again to pass a bill called the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act, led by Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The bill would simply have required the Trump administration to report on Assad’s war crimes, support investigations and explore the establishment of a tribunal that could hold Assad to account.
The bill was help up by one senator, Rand Paul (R-Ky.). A spokesman for Paul told me he is concerned the legislation might be used as a pretext for deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war. That argument has now been overtaken by events. Trump didn’t need the bill as a pretext to attack Syria. And Trump doesn’t want deeper U.S. involvement even after attacking.
The House has passed another bill, this one named after “Caesar,” which would impose sanctions on Assad for war crimes and halt the flow of weapons used to kill civilians. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) opposes the bill, so it languishes without a hearing in the Senate.
Just before he was fired, H.R. McMaster gave a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In it, he said, “All civilized nations must hold Iran and Russia accountable for their role in enabling atrocities and perpetuating human suffering in Syria.”
But the Trump administration has largely ignored the atrocities, as did the Obama administration before it. Until the United States and its allies confront Assad, Russia and Iran for all the crimes committed during the conflict, Syrian civilians and international norms will continue to suffer.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Follow @joshrogin