Washington (AFP) – With global outrage mounting over an alleged chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Syria, the Pentagon on Monday weighed its options for a retaliatory strike.
Military action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seemed likely, after President Donald Trump warned of a “big price to pay” and spoke of imminent “major decisions” within the next 48 hours.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he won’t rule anything out militarily.
But thanks to the Trump administration’s whipsawing messaging over whether America will even stay in Syria, and the dangerous complexities of the multi-national conflict, the Pentagon’s options appeared limited.
The attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma killed at least 48 people Saturday after a “poisonous chlorine gas attack” in Eastern Ghouta, rescuers and medics said.
By Monday, the United States and France had promised a “strong, joint response” and Britain, too, joined a growing chorus demanding action.
Syria and its ally Russia have dismissed allegations that the attack was carried out by Syrian forces as “fabrications” and have warned against using them to justify military action.
– Russia risks –
Perhaps the biggest risk for Pentagon planners is Russia, and its large presence which since late 2015 has been deeply enmeshed with Assad’s military.
“The US has to be very careful not to accidentally strike Russian targets or kill Russian advisors,” Ben Connable, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told AFP.
“That significantly limits the number of options available to the United States, because the Russians are embedded in many cases with the Syrians.”
Connable warned if the US accidentally or purposefully kills uniformed Russian soldiers, there would potentially be a dangerous escalation between the two nuclear powers.
Trump made a rare personal criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin following Saturday’s attack, a break from his reluctance to single out the strongman by name as he has sought better coordination with Moscow in the Syria crisis.
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump wrote in a tweet.
– Past as prelude? –
After a deadly sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun that killed scores of people in April last year, Trump quickly ordered a retaliatory strike.
The US military blasted 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Shayrat air base, which the Pentagon said Assad’s jets had used to launch the deadly chemical attack.
The action won Trump bipartisan praise because it was seen as limited in scope and designed to respond to a specific incident, rather than pulling America deeper into Syria’s civil war.
“The president responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons last year,” Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent Trump critic said.
“He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”
– What is the goal? –
Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said Trump’s administration needs to figure out what its long-term goal is in Syria as it weighs its military options.
She described a few potential military responses, including a tactical strike such as the one last year, or a broader attack on Assad’s air forces including taking out his radar and air-defense systems, and hitting multiple air bases.
“I expect the question from the Pentagon to the civilian leadership is what is the goal,” Cafarella told AFP.
She said another option likely under consideration is to tackle Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
Such a move would not be in direct response to the latest alleged chemical attack, but would signal a willingness to curtail Iranian influence in Syria.
“We want to ask whether the president is going to broaden his response in order to also punish Assad’s backers Russia and Iran,” she said.
Another possibility is Trump asking an ally to conduct military action against the regime.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he and Trump had shared information “confirming” toxic weapons were used in Douma, without elaborating.
– Hawk at Trump’s side –
Trump on Monday began working with his new national security advisor, John Bolton, a staunch hawk on Iran and American military intervention in general, so the president’s outlook on Syria — and whether he still wants to withdraw the roughly 2,000 US forces — may soon morph again.
The US personnel in Syria belong to a coalition providing weapons, training and other support to forces fighting Islamic State jihadists in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Daniel Davis, a retired army lieutenant colonel and fellow at the Defense Priorities military think tank, cautioned against US military action.
“The absolute worst policy option for the United States is to get deeper involved in Syria’s civil war, which however brutal, has no bearing on our security or prosperity — especially when further intervention risks a clash with nuclear-armed Russia,” he told AFP.