And just like that, Trump’s second Syrian attack appears to have come and gone.
Sure, over a 100 cruise missiles were launched on Saturday morning local time at three mostly empty military installations, including one research and two storage facilities…
Not if one observes the response of the targeted nations: on Saturday, Syria, Russia and Iran largely shrugged off the strikes by the United States, United Kingdom and France (but not Germany and Italy) against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities, which naturally drew angry condemnations but no indication that there would be a wider escalation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the U.S.-led strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities as an “act of aggression,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatalloh Ali Khamenei tweeted that the attack represented “a war crime,” and the Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as “barbarous aggression.”
But, as the WaPo reported, the pre-dawn volleys of cruise missiles launched by the United States, Britain and France “were limited to three sites linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program and triggered no retaliation.”
In saving face, Russia said they did little damage and that most of the cruise missiles targeting Syrian sites had been intercepted by Syrian air defenses, including all of those that were bound for the site from which last week’s alleged chemical attack originated.
Syria quickly trolled Trump, and shortly after the attack the Syria presidency tweeted a post saying “the honorable cannot be humiliated.” A few hours later, the account tweeted a video of him walking nonchalantly to work through the halls of the Syrian presidential palace. The text said: “The morning of resilience.”
رئاسة الجمهورية العربية السورية pic.twitter.com/hhIZT6cOTe
— Syrian Presidency (@Presidency_Sy) April 14, 2018
Meanwhile, in the capital Damascus, there was defiance and relief as residents jolted awake by explosions at around 4 a.m. realized the strikes would be limited. Syrian state television broadcast scenes of citizens taking to the streets to celebrate and demonstrate their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, waving Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags. As WaPo Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly wrote:
Damascus is shrugging off the US strikes, which turned out to be more limited than feared. People are dancing in the streets, waving Assad’s portrait & saying Trump has failed.
“Thank God this was less than we had feared. We were scared of a bigger assault that could be devastating, but we are happy it was limited and less powerful,” Mayda Kumejian, a Damascus resident, told the WaPo by phone. She described being jolted awake by explosions and the sound of jets roaring overhead.
“This strike is only muscle flexing by Trump to show his power,” she said. “Assad’s regime is much stronger now.”
“We tell Trump, you can do nothing. Here we are celebrating to show that you are bankrupt,” said a jubilant woman interviewed on state television.
* * *
Meanwhile, world leaders sought to tamp down any tensions associated with the strike. The United States and its allies said three facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were targeted: a scientific research center in the greater Damascus area, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and command post, also near Homs.
In comments on Saturday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry said the strikes did little damage and claimed that of 103 cruise missiles fired in the U.S.-led airstrike, 71 were shot down by Syria’s Soviet-made air-defense systems. The intercepted missiles included all 12 of those bound for the Al-Dumayr military airfield near Damascus, where the chemical attack that triggered the crisis was allegedly launched.
In de-escalating the airstrikes’ aftermath, Russia said its own air defenses were not activated because none of the missiles passed through its zone of influence. Russia also said there were no immediate reports of military or civilian casualties. The Syrian army command said three civilians had been injured in the attack on Homs.
One reason why there was no escalation: the strikes had been flagged so far in advance that Syria and its allies had plenty of notice to evacuate the likely targets of civilians and assets, possibly also including key components of the chemical weapons program, leaving it unclear how much of an impact they would have.
* * *
Saturday’s strike against Syria was the second time in little over a year that the Trump administration had launched “retaliatory strikes” against Syria in the wake of chemical attacks. Last year’s attack, which took place on April 7, 2017, targeted the Shayrat air base outside Hama, which U.S. officials said was used to launch a sarin gas attack that killed 70 people in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. Within a week of last year’s strikes, Syrian media broadcast photographs showing that the base was operative again.
* * *
So what, if anything changed, and what was the point of the airstrikes?
Some, observing that Russian air defenses did not engage, and that the US & Russia are now in full deconfliction mode, claimed that “the whole thing was just a charade.”
Russian air defenses did not engage during #SyrianStrikes, says US Joint Satff director Lt. Gen. McKenzie
US & Russia in full deconfliction mode. The whole thing was just a charade.
— Yannis Koutsomitis (@YanniKouts) April 14, 2018
Meanwhile, according to NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent, Trump’s message was simple: “Assad wasn’t targeted. His air force remains intact. US efforts taken to prevent escalation with Russia. So the message seems to be that the Syrian regime can continue its war and Assad still gets to win, just not by using chemical weapons.”
Assad wasn’t targeted. His air force remains intact. US efforts taken to prevent escalation with Russia. So the message seems to be that the Syrian regime can continue its war and Assad still gets to win, just not by using chemical weapons. https://t.co/KB8pjDVjqw
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) April 14, 2018
Finally, one proposed angle is that what happened last night will have little consequence for Syria, whereas the real impact will be on Iran-Israel relations: “Russia may forego escalation after Western strikes. But there is every indication that Iran is unlikely to let the Israeli killing of its soldiers go unanswered.”
The most consequential strategic issue in Syria now is not Russian-US relations but Iranian-Israeli relations. Russia may forego escalation after Western strikes. But there is every indication that Iran is unlikely to let the Israeli killing of its soldiers go unanswered. pic.twitter.com/DPTNvdBRR2
— Shibley Telhami (@ShibleyTelhami) April 14, 2018
The best news, however, is that Trump got his “mission accomplished” victory parade, if only in his own eyes.
A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2018
It remains to be seen if the brief foreign distraction will prove dramatic enough to distract from the president’s ever growing list of domestic scandals…