President Donald Trump made good on his threats to attack Syria Friday night, launching what he called “precision strikes” against three chemical weapons sites in a military action certain to enrage Russia and raise new questions about his Middle East strategy.
Trump announced the strikes in a somber televised address less than a week after what U.S. officials call a poison gas attack on civilians conducted by Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime.
“These are not the actions of a man,” Trump said, referring to Assad. “They are crimes of a monster.”
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said.
Though more substantial than an April 2017 attack Trump ordered on a Syrian airbase also as punishment for the gassing of civilians—Friday’s action did not open a new phase of American involvement in Syria, where Trump’s larger strategic goals remain unclear.
Although Trump said Friday that he is “prepared to sustain this response,” he also stressed that he does not intend to stay long in war-torn Syria, where roughly 2,000 U.S. troops have been fighting the Islamic State.
“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria — under no circumstances,” he said.
At a Pentagon briefing late Friday night, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. James Dunford said the strikes were limited to Syrian chemical weapons facilities and did not target Syrian troops or military assets.
While Syrian air defenses did fire at some U.S. aircraft or missiles, Mattis said there had been “no reports of losses” to U.S. forces. And despite previous threats from Moscow to shoot down U.S. cruise missiles, Dunford said he was not aware of any response by Russia’s military, which has fought alongside its ally Assad for years in Syria’s brutal civil war.
Dunford added that the U.S. had used a pre-existing “deconfliction” line of communication with Moscow, adding: “We did not do any coordination with the Russians on the strike, nor did we pre-notify them.”
Flanked by Dunford and the British and French defense attaches, whose militaries assisted the U.S. operation, Mattis called the attacks a “one-time shot.”
The attacks were on a smaller scale than some analysts had predicted, reasoning that Trump needed to send a tougher signal than he did a year ago given that his last strike had clearly not deterred Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons as a tool to put down an armed rebellion that has raged since early 2011.
Mattis said his confidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the recent chemical attacks increased yesterday, after congressional testimony in which he suggested a degree of doubt. “We are very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling our sarin right now,” he said.