he U.S.-led coalition strikes in Syria were designed to deter President Bashar Assad’s regime from launching further chemical attacks without collapsing his shaky government and drawing the United States further into a lengthy civil war.
It’s a tricky balance.
The attacks were described by the Pentagon as precise and aimed exclusively at the regime’s chemical weapons facilities. Officials also said the strike was larger than a similar attack on the Assad regime launched last year.
In a news conference Friday evening, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S.-led coalition used double the number of weapons as last year’s strike, which involved 58 U.S. missiles and was also in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s military.
“It was a heavy strike,” Mattis said of the attack on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities.
Trump said that the purpose of the response “is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said.
But calibrating the attack to achieve those objectives is more art than science. It’s hard to predict how any of the various forces in Syria will react.
Opposition forces, including the Islamic State, may try to take advantage of a weakened Assad. Iran and Russia could step up their involvement in the country.
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was some “activity” by Syrian surface-to-air missiles, but there were no reports of U.S. or allied casualties. More details are expected Saturday.
Mattis said the initial strike was completed. “Right now we have no additional strikes planned,” he said.
In recent days the administration had weighed how to intensify the attack without collapsing the Assad regime or drawing Russia or Iran further into the fight.
In congressional testimony this week Mattis addressed some of the concerns administration officials weighed as they deliberated on a possible response.
He said how “we keep this from escalating out of control” and avoiding civilian casualties were among his chief concerns.
Mattis also said that any strike would not represent a shift in U.S. strategy in Syria, which is aimed at defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The United States would not be going to war with Assad or his chief allies, Russia and Iran.
Asked about concerns in planning a strike on Assad’s regime, Mattis cited worry over inadvertently causing civilian casualties and avoiding anything that would trigger a wider war.
“On a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control,” he said.