Pen­tagon wary of U.S. quag­mire in Syria af­ter ‘one-off’ strike

Mis­sile at­tack blurs fo­cus on de­feat­ing Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

U.S. com­man­ders and Pen­tagon strate­gists tried Mon­day to shift their fo­cus back to the fight against the Is­lamic State group af­ter a White House-or­dered at­tack against forces loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, in­sist­ing the one-time strike to pun­ish the use of chem­i­cal weapons by Da­m­as­cus had not drawn the U.S. deeper into Syria’s 6-year-old civil war.

The naval bom­bard­ment of the Shayrat air base in western Syria on Fri­day stoked fears and ques­tions inside Wash­ing­ton and be­yond over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lat­est red line against Mr. As­sad and his Rus­sian and Ira­nian al­lies, and how it would af­fect Mr. Trump’s long-de­clared pri­or­ity of de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State and other ji­hadi groups. The at­tack marked the first time U.S. forces di­rectly en­gaged Mr. As­sad’s forces since be­gin­ning op­er­a­tions in the coun­try two years ago.

“Im­me­di­ate strikes do not pre­clude a more ro­bust strat­egy” against the As­sad regime by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “In fact, they open the door to it,” said Jen­nifer Ca­farella, the lead in­tel­li­gence plan­ner at the Wash­ing­ton-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War.

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand of­fi­cials in­sisted Mon­day that the 59 Tom­a­hawk mis­siles de­liv­ered by the Ar­leigh Burke-class de­stroy­ers into the Shayrat air­field were “a one-off strike” specif­i­cally or­dered as re­tal­i­a­tion for a regime-led chem­i­cal at­tack against anti-gov­ern­ment forces in north­ern Syria’s Idlib province. The Idlib at­tack, in which U.S. of­fi­cials say mu­ni­tions

armed with sarin nerve gas were dropped on rebel tar­gets, killed more than 80 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 11 chil­dren.

“It is not the po­si­tion of CENTCOM or the United States to take ac­tion in the … civil war go­ing on with As­sad in Syria,” CENTCOM spokesman Col. John Thomas told re­porters at the Pen­tagon dur­ing a tele­con­fer­ence from com­mand head­quar­ters in Tampa, Florida.

“Our main fight … is against ISIS, and we are pri­mar­ily fo­cused on that fight,” Col. Thomas said. There has been no pol­icy change for cur­rent or fu­ture Syr­ian op­er­a­tions since the al Shayrat strike, as far as con­tin­ued tar­get­ing of Mr. As­sad’s forces in the coun­try, he said.

But an­a­lysts note that the en­emy also gets a vote, and the White House and Pen­tagon have yet to de­clare defini­tively what they would do if Mr. As­sad launched an­other chem­i­cal at­tack or even an at­tack with con­ven­tional weapons that re­sulted in a larger death toll than the Idlib sor­tie. Mr. Trump’s hopes of work­ing with Rus­sia in the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State have also been put into se­ri­ous doubt by the at­tack on the Krem­lin’s main ally in the re­gion.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was re­ported to have upped the ante with Moscow on Mon­day, when The As­so­ci­ated Press cited a “se­nior of­fi­cial” as say­ing the U.S. be­lieves Rus­sia knew in ad­vance about the Idlib chem­i­cal weapon at­tack and ap­par­ently did noth­ing to stop it.

There is no ev­i­dence of di­rect Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the at­tack, but a Rus­sian­op­er­ated drone was tracked fly­ing over a hospi­tal as vic­tims of the at­tack were rush­ing to get treat­ment, the of­fi­cial told the news wires.

The White House pushed back against the re­port Mon­day evening, say­ing the is­sue was still open.

“At this time, there is no U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity con­sen­sus that Rus­sia had fore­knowl­edge of the Syr­ian chem­i­cal at­tack,” a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

‘Mul­tipronged ap­proach’

At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer tried re­peat­edly to sep­a­rate the Shayrat strike from the mis­sion of de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State. But the White House also seemed to sug­gest that the U.S. mis­sion had sub­tly ex­panded, with Mr. As­sad’s re­moval from power now a pre­req­ui­site to Syria’s long-term sta­bil­ity af­ter the ter­ror­ist group’s de­feat.

“Our No. 1 pri­or­ity is to de­feat ISIS, but we’re also, I think from a hu­man­i­tar­ian stand­point and a refugee stand­point, en­sur­ing that we cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment” in Syria that does not pose a threat to U.S. in­ter­ests, Mr. Spicer said.

“I think right now the fo­cus is twofold. One is de­feat­ing ISIS and the sec­ond is cre­at­ing the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment nec­es­sary for the Syr­ian peo­ple to have a new lead­er­ship there,” he said. “I can’t imag­ine a sta­ble and peace­ful Syria where Bashar al-As­sad is in power.”

But asked if it was pos­si­ble to de­feat the Is­lamic State with Mr. As­sad in power, Mr. Spicer replied, “Yes, sure.”

At the De­fense Depart­ment, Col. Thomas said any ef­forts to deal with the As­sad regime and its Rus­sian al­lies were now be­ing han­dled by the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, not the Pen­tagon.

Mr. Spicer did not rule out more U.S. strikes on Mr. As­sad’s forces if Da­m­as­cus uses chem­i­cal weapons again, but he had to cor­rect his lan­guage later in the day.

“If you gas a baby, if you put a bar­rel bomb into in­no­cent peo­ple, I think you will see a re­sponse from this pres­i­dent,” Mr. Spicer as­serted at his daily brief­ing. In a clar­i­fi­ca­tion, the White House said the use of bar­rel bombs — which Mr. As­sad de­ploys fre­quently against his en­e­mies and do not nec­es­sar­ily in­clude chem­i­cal weapons — would not au­to­mat­i­cally trig­ger a U.S. at­tack.

An­a­lysts said it will be hard to keep sep­a­rate the Is­lamic State fight and the clash with Mr. As­sad even if Mr. Trump and his aides say the mis­sile strike was sharply tar­geted against the use of chem­i­cal weapons.

“De­ter­rence is a per­sis­tent con­di­tion, not a one-hour strike pack­age,” said Christo­pher Kozak, a se­nior Syria an­a­lyst at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War. The pres­i­dent “has demon­strated his in­tent and ca­pa­bil­ity to use Amer­i­can force if nec­es­sary. He must sus­tain pres­sure against As­sad in or­der to set con­di­tions to achieve vi­tal U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests in Syria.”

‘A mea­sured re­sponse’

The Pen­tagon and White House also found them­selves on the de­fen­sive Mon­day over claims that the U.S. at­tack had not put a mea­sur­able dent in Mr. As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons ca­pa­bil­ity de­spite the Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­sile bar­rage.

Images of Syr­ian air­craft tak­ing off from the Shayrat air­field over the week­end were broad­cast over re­gional news out­lets.

The ac­tiv­ity on the base, which U.S. in­tel­li­gence claims was the launch­ing point for the Idlib chem­i­cal at­tack, so soon af­ter the Amer­i­can strike called into ques­tion the ef­fec­tive­ness of the at­tack.

De­fense Secretary James Mat­tis de­fended the im­pact, call­ing it “a mea­sured re­sponse to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s use of chem­i­cal weapons.”

Da­m­as­cus “has lost the abil­ity to re­fuel or rearm air­craft at Shayrat air­field,” demonstrating that “the United States will not pas­sively stand by while As­sad mur­ders in­no­cent peo­ple with chem­i­cal weapons,” the Pen­tagon chief added in a state­ment.

While U.S. forces tar­geted air­craft, fuel de­pots, lo­gis­tics and mu­ni­tions hubs inside the Shayrat base, they avoided de­stroy­ing its air­field and fa­cil­i­ties known to be stor­ing ac­tive chem­i­cal weapons.

But leav­ing a func­tional air­field and chem­i­cal weapon stock­piles in­tact did not mean Mr. As­sad’s abil­ity to con­duct ad­di­tional chem­i­cal strikes was not de­terred, said Cen­tral Com­mand’s Col. Thomas.

“Our task … was to strike a base that was di­rectly re­lated to the [Idlib] chem­i­cal weapons at­tack,” he told re­porters at the Pen­tagon. “Our goal was not to de­stroy the air­field. That was not the kind of at­tack and those were not the kind of weapons we would em­ploy” if that had been the ob­jec­tive.

Tom­a­hawk mis­siles fired at an air­field in Syria set off ques­tions about the U.S. role in the coun­try’s 6-year-old civil war and whether Pres­i­dent Trump would at­tack again.

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