By Daniel Loud, Special Contributor for Intelligence-related Issues
After President Trump ordered 59 cruise missiles to bomb the Sharyat air base in Syria, I was rather ambivalent toward the strike. I felt a mixture of relief and apprehension: relief that Trump, despite previous statements, had chosen to at least address the cruelty of the Assad regime, but also apprehension that his steps to do so may have just mired him in a conflict he doesn’t have the desire to see through to the end.
However, the recent attack at Khan Sheikoun, which claimed 80 lives, has revealed an additional insight into Trump’s recent missile strike on Syria: it was ultimately meaningless. Intelligence gathered from first-hand accounts of the attack has indicated a fundamental shift in the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Namely, this was the first attack since 2013 in which the Assad regime used sarin, a nerve agent that can cause fatal convulsions or seizures, even after mild exposure.
The use of sarin, as Khan Sheikoun suggests, indicates that Assad’s chemical weapons program is far more extensive than intelligence experts and policymakers believed. In the wake of the 2013 chemical attack in the Ghouta district outside of Damascus, the U.S. and Russia backed a plan by which Syria would give up its chemical stockpiles. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)would then transport and dismantle them under international supervision. By spring of 2014, the Obama administration reported that all of Syria’s reported chemical weapons had been removed from the country. Since then, the Syrian government has used chlorine gas on rebels on multiple occasions.
While the use of chlorine gas in warfare is still a gross violation of international norms, the use of sarin is fundamentally different. Chlorine gas is a skin irritant that, although still a chemical weapon, can be produced rather easily. Sarin, on the other hand, is a complicated nerve agent that takes considerable resources to produce. The Assad regime’s possession of such a complicated chemical weapon puts one harsh reality in plain view: Syria’s chemical weapons program is quite extensive and here to stay for now.
If President Trump truly wants to punish Assad and prevent future chemical attacks, he must accept that Syria’s chemical weapons program is still quite extensive and that it will take a considerable commitment to cripple it. However, it’s doubtful that a president who campaigned on pulling the U.S. out of the Middle East would be willing to carry through with this commitment. As a result, Trump’s recent missile strike amounts to little more than bluster, a particularly explosive statement with no real policy to back it up. If President Trump carries out further strikes on Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, he must heed the intelligence that points to a much more extensive Syrian chemical weapons program. Any further strikes, which would further drag the U.S. into an incredibly complicated crisis, must be part of a cohesive and rationally measured strategy to deter Assad from using chemical weapons or cripple his ability to deliver them; in such a complicated environment mere bluster can only bring disaster.
Daniel Loud is a junior at UPenn, where he studies International Relations.