On Saturday morning, April 14, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to share his evaluation of the airstrikes that the U.S. military, along with the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom, carried out against Syria the previous night. He called the bombings “perfectly executed” and judged that they “could not have had a better result,” then ended with a triumphant proclamation: “Mission Accomplished!”
It is fitting that Trump reached for a George W. Bush–era slogan synonymous with premature claims of victory and strategic incoherence in the Middle East. It is not clear what was actually accomplished by this latest intervention in the Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year. In his speech to the nation announcing the airstrikes, Trump justified them by pointing to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians in Douma on April 7. Such weapons, he argued, “are uniquely dangerous, not only because they inflict gruesome suffering, but because even small amounts can unleash widespread devastation.” In response, Trump ordered “precision strikes” against Assad’s chemical-weapons facilities, hoping “to establish a strong deterrent” against the future production and use of such weapons.
Just over a year ago Trump bombed a Syrian airfield, and for precisely the same reasons. Clearly, this served as no deterrent, either to the most recent chemical attack or others Assad is believed to have carried out, including two in January involving chlorine. The use of chemical weapons is a heinous crime banned by international conventions, but such weapons are not going to be dismantled through sporadic airstrikes signaled days in advance. U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie seemed to admit as much while briefing reporters about the operation. “We believe that by hitting Barzeh, in particular, we’ve attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon program,” he said. But that statement tells us nothing about just what was destroyed, or what capabilities Assad retains.