President Trump has initiated his first military operation as President. On April 6 USS Ross and USS Porter lobbed 59 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles into Shayrat Airbase in western Syria. The President was reportedly moved to take action against the regime after seeing images of civilians, including babies, suffer after Bashar al-Assad launched another sarin gas attack on his own people. The move was a shift for his previous policy of abandoning the effort for regime change in Damascus. Being in the big chair appears to have changed the President’s approach to the conflict.
Still, there are many unanswered questions in the wake of the missile bombardment. The most pressing of which: what exactly is the Administration’s policy? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley appear to have differing answers. Tillerson seemingly cannot even agree with himself. For the sake of clarity, the Administration should get its talking points straightened out.
People of all political persuasions have opined on the action and offered a wide range of thoughts. One thing is for sure: this was as much a political message as much as it was a military one.
In the aftermath of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Bill Clinton ordered Tomahawks to be fired into Afghanistan and Sudan. Clinton used a Tomahawk strike to show that he was a strong fighter of terrorism. However, the missiles did little to no damage and Al-Qaeda not only survived but felt emboldened, and we all know what happened three years later.
A Tomahawk Cruise Missile is a great weapon, and the Gulf War in 1991 proved that the Navy is better with them than they would be without them. That said, Tomahawks are not decisive weapons, but they are great for Presidential photo-ops. Less than 24 hours after American missiles created a really loud noise and no doubt a tremendous fireworks show from 59,000 pounds of explosives, Syrian aircraft were flying from Shayrat.
Defense Secretary James Mattis responded by the saying, “The assessment of the Department of Defense is that the strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities, and 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.” He said that Syrian jets taking off from Shayrat were doing so to cover up just how much damage the strikes actually did.
As for the non-cratered runway, Mattis said,” The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and, at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest.”
Trump intended to send a message to the regime that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. While some have praised Trump for enforcing Obama’s red line, only time will tell if 59 Tomahawks will deter Assad from the further use of such weapons. If it does, then Trump will have passed his first foreign policy test. If it does not, then he will have risked opening up an entirely different can of worms.