The Syrian Government’s use of sarin gas this week in rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun, whether ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or not, has created an inflection point in American foreign and security policy. President Trump condemned the sarin attack, indicating it changed his view of Assad – then took decisive action Thursday evening, launching an estimated 60 cruise missiles at the Al-Sharyat airbase in the Homs area, with early reports of Syrian aircraft damaged.
This swift kinetic response was important on many levels. It tells Assad the game is up on sarin. It tells North Korea to stand by, as they may be next. It tells Russia, China and American detractors that Obama is really gone, the days of non-engagement by America over, and days of proportionate kinetic response are back. America will not sit silent.
As a former Assistant Secretary of State and Naval Intelligence Officer, the difficulty balancing kinetic response and forward-leaning diplomacy is hard, situationally dependent and fraught with potential error. President Trump struck the perfect balance. He made clear his revulsion at Syrian use of sarin, set global expectations for a diplomatic shift and kinetic response, delivered the promised retaliation, and remains fully engaged.
This is not an incidental win, this is critical. Credible deterrence of sarin worldwide depended on a swift, meaningful American response, particularly in view of past disappointments. Use of sarin by Assad, the lethal nerve agent invented by Nazi Germany in 1939, represented a diplomatic game-changer.
Trump saw this immediately. Nerve agents were banned after World War I, based on their horrific effects. Pictures displayed at the United Nations this week, including children dying of sarin, confirmed the horror.
President Trump did not hesitate, which by itself sends a startling message to the world. Don’t call his bluff – it is not a bluff. Here was a new “shot heard round the world” -- or rather 60 of them. A United Nations condemnation is due, with a unified call on Russia to renounce continued support for Assad.
That said, American strikes on the offending Syrian airbase were obviously well-planned and proportionate. They show how easily the US can, if it wants, evade Russian and Syrian air defenses, penetrating Syrian airspace at will, no handwringing. Russia will also not forget that.
All this has the flavor of Reagan’s strike on Libya in 1986, and Israel’s on the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981. Reagan’s 1986 Libya strike, Operation El Dorado Canyon, was in direct retaliation for Libya’s 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing. He wasted no time, set Muammar Qaddafi back. Not surprisingly Qaddafi began immediate internal reforms, his “revolution within the revolution.” Reagan changed that game. Similarly, the 1981 strike on Iraq, Operation Opera, was intended to have material effect – and did.
So, what next? Continued and constructive engagement. The first priority is to end any future use of sarin. While this strike may do it, it may not. Prepare for another. If another is needed, it should hit Syria’s command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I).
Alternatively, the next kinetic strike could hit the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate or National Security Bureau, both formerly involved in chemical attacks. Former Syrian General Adnan Sillou has been quoted saying that “just two people have the power to order a chemical weapons attack aside from Assad …,” heads of these two bureaus. Another option is to hit one or both with a robust, retaliatory cyber-attack. This is the stuff of credible deterrence.
Diplomatically, the kinetic response, new American resolve, and universal international condemnation of Assad should be leveraged to dissuade Russia from continued support for the Syrian leader. This should be top priority for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits Moscow next month. Now, he has capital to work with.
President Trump appears to be reasserting American moral leadership, as President Reagan once did. This event boldly called him out, and we should all be glad it did. He apparently heard the call, did not hesitate, did not over or under calibrate, and did not tweet.
What he did is what Reagan would have done. He called it straight, relied on his top diplomat and top military leader to help him set global expectations, and delivered a heart punch. Message sent. Let us hope the message was heard at the other end of the line. We will soon see in Moscow.
Hats off to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis too – for being prepared. As diplomacy takes over, America should give Russia every reason to join a broad international coalition accelerating Assad’s departure. Sarin is impermissible, full stop. That makes Assad impermissible.
The only thing left is a strong, Reagan-like – or perhaps Jacksonian – speech from the Oval Office explaining that the civilized world will not tolerate sarin, and – on this 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I – we will never again allow that kind of horror.
America is once again a moral leader, and we should invite the world once again to join us. For most, that should not be a hard call.
Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.