Washington Wednesday: Syria

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

On Friday night, President Trump addressed the nation from the White House, making this announcement:

TRUMP: A short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes to targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

The airstrike followed an apparent chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma, just outside of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The United States and its allies say they have evidence—and zero doubtthat Assad was behind the attack.

Douma had been a stronghold for forces fighting against the Syrian government in the country’s 7-year-old civil war. However, many of the victims of the attack were not combatants, but civilians.

TRUMP: The despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.

The airstrike was a joint mission, combining U.S., French and UK forces.

British Prime Minister Theresa May this week explained the legal basis for Britain’s involvement in the airstrikes. She said before she could authorize the use of force, she needed—and had—convincing evidence “of extreme humanitarian distress.”

MAY: Second it must be objectively clear that there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. And third, the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering, and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim. 

This was not the first military strike President Trump has ordered in Syria. The U.S. hit a Syrian air base with a barrage of missiles following another chemical weapons attack almost exactly one year ago.

At the Pentagon on Friday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford explained this airstrike differed from the the last one.

DUNFORD: Last year we conducted a unilateral strike on a single site. The focus was on the aircraft associated with the Syrian chemical weapons attack in April of 2017. This evening, we conducted strikes with two allies on multiple sites that will result in a long-term degradation of Syria’s capability to research, develop and deploy chemical and biological weapons.

Dunford said Friday’s strike destroyed important infrastructure and that the Syrian regime will lose years of research and development data, along with specialized equipment and expensive chemical weapons precursors.

The Syrian government and its Russian allies continue to deny the chemical attack ever took place, but Syrian and Russian authorities resisted giving international inspectors access to Douma, at least until yesterday—10 days after the attack when Syrian state media says inspectors were allowed in, but the State Department said that as of Tuesday afternoon, inspectors were still being held off.

Joining me now with more insight is retired Army Colonel Steve Bucci. He served for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and later as an assistant secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a visiting fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

Colonel, first of all, how effective were the strikes?

STEVE BUCCI, GUEST: Well… looking at the satellite photos that the Pentagon has put up of the three sites, they were all hammered pretty well. Ya know, it’s hard to know what’s underneath the rubble and did they really destroy the devices or are they just buried? I can’t ascertain that, but the Pentagon is pretty good. They’ve got experts who do bomb damage assessment and their evaluation is they not only hit the targets but they took them out completely.

What, in your view, did the United States and its allies accomplish with this strike?

BUCCI: They accomplished, frankly, exactly what they set out to do, which was number one: to degrade Assad’s capabilities to use chemical weapons. So they took some of the chemical weapon stuff away from him. And second, to hopefully deter him from using them again. So we know we didn’t get it all. That wasn’t the intent. We got a bunch of it and the rest of it we want to convince him to keep it in the bunkers and not use it again. And that was the intent and I think that was the result.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal the other day that said President Trump, to quote the story, “deferred to his Pentagon chief’s caution and tempered his preference for a more robust attack on Syria.” Now, just supposing that’s true, why would the Pentagon advise a more restrained military response?

BUCCI: I think because if we had done it in a more robust way, if we hit a lot more targets, or did it with a much heavier hand, we start to fade into essentially mission creep. Right now, our mission is to get rid of ISIS… So the Pentagon cautioned that we go a little lighter so that we send the message about the chemical weapons, but not allow it to be misinterpreted that we’re suddenly trying to do a regime change similar to what we did in Iraq. That’s not the goal of this mission and truth be told we also don’t really have any vested interest in killing a bunch of Russians or Iranians. In fact, to my knowledge, we didn’t kill any Syrians. It was a very measured and specific response, not one that could be easily interpreted as being a much wider or more wide-ranging intent.

Okay. What happens, Colonel, if Assad turns around and does it again?

BUCCI: If he uses them again, we will probably go in with a much more robust capability. I think you’ll see way more than three targets. I hope the French and the British would stay with us in this particular alliance, because this is not just about Syria. It’s also about messaging to Iran, to Russia, to North Korea that when the United States and its principle allies say, “This behavior is a no-go,” we really mean it. And we don’t want them thinking they can keep pushing that line and allow them to get away with it.

There was a Russian ambassador who was quoted in a foreign media interview and was saying that Russia would shoot down any U.S. missiles that the U.S. fired at Syria. That didn’t happen, though, right? They didn’t attempt to shoot anything down.

BUCCI: As far as we understand it, the Russians never got in the fight at all. They have some pretty advanced systems there and they did not use any of them. Of course, their systems weren’t really near any of the targets we were going after, and after the missiles impacted on the three targets the Syrians shot about 40 of their anti-aircraft missiles up into the sky, which is kind of a false bravado kind of response and unfortunately probably killed some Syrian civilians because those are pretty big devices. They go up in the air and they come back down again. So, yeah, the Syrian response in no way hindered our effort at all.

Colonel, why is Russia so invested in Syria?

BUCCI: Well, the Syrians have been, ya know, first, Soviet allies and then Russian allies for a long, long time. The Russians have their only warm water naval fort there in Syria. And when the Obama administration basically outsourced Syrian policy to the Russians with that whole “turn in your chemical weapons” deal, the Russians came in heavy. They brought in aircrafts, they brought in troops. So they have made a significant investment both in money and manpower into keeping Bashar al-Assad in power because he is their puppet. The Iranians have done the same, because they also have a ton of influence over Assad. And they are bound and determined to keep the government of Syria in the hands of a Shia Muslim, which Assad is, and don’t want it to become a Sunni country like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Qatar and some of the others.

Okay. President Trump recently said that he wants to pull U.S. troops out of Syria very soon. Does this change that calculation, this chemical weapons attack?

BUCCI: I think it did. It actually changed before that. I think part of the discussion with the president when the attack occurred was not only exactly how we would respond to this specific situation, but also that we weren’t really done with cleaning up ISIS. And while the generals and admirals want to bring all those kids home just as much as everybody else, they also don’t want a repeat of the precipitous exit that we made in 2011 from Iraq which gave rise to ISIS. So in this case Trump showed… he really wants to do it based on the conditions on the ground and he has taken the cue on that stuff from his military leaders.

Alright, Colonel, thank you very much for your time and your insight, sir. We appreciate it.

BUCCI: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) In this Monday, April 16, 2018 photo, people gather in front of a hospital that locals referred as Point One, left, just meters away from where the alleged chemical weapons attack occurred in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria. 

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