The pros and cons of striking Syria



April 16, 2018 - 11:00 PM

It has been clear for some time — telegraphed in typically blustering language on Twitter — that President Donald Trump intended to make Syrian President Bashar Assad pay a price for the poisoning deaths of dozens of people earlier this month in the rebel-held town of Duma. On Friday evening, Trump announced that he had indeed ordered “precision strikes” on facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program and that they were being coordinated with the armed forces of Britain and France. On Saturday morning, Trump and other administration officials declared the mission a success.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Trump’s decision, he is right to see the use of chemical weapons as especially abhorrent. Of course, conventional weapons also cause death and injury, and a child killed by a barrel bomb is just as dead as a child poisoned by sarin or chlorine gas. But for a century, chemical weapons have been viewed by civilized nations as beyond the pale. The descriptions in recent days of Syrian victims gasping, trembling and foaming at the mouth only reinforces that view. If the deployment of such weapons in Syria goes unpunished, other governments and movements might be emboldened to violate that prohibition. That Britain and France were willing to participate in the strikes with the United States is proof that alarm about these atrocities isn’t unique to the United States.

Whether this weekend’s attack will succeed in its objective of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons is less clear. On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Mission Accomplished!” and a Pentagon spokeswoman said that U.S. officials believed the strikes had “significantly crippled” Assad’s ability to carry out future chemical weapons attacks. Yet Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, acknowledged that “there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there.”

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