War

Trump's Missiles Hit Domestic Critics Harder Than Assad

Civilians left behind in Khan Shaykhun are getting hammered. Trump? Less than before.

Shot in the dark.

Photographer: U.S. Navy via Getty Images

President Donald Trump's missile strike on a Syrian regime-controlled airfield was presented to the public as an act of retaliation against President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly launching a chemical attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. Evidence from the last 12 days shows it has had no effect on the determination of Assad and his Russian ally, President Vladimir Putin, to bomb rebels in the area out of existence. On the domestic front, however, it delivered a clear win for Trump.

The Tomahawk attack in the early morning of April 7 killed up to nine of Assad’s servicemen and, according to relatively pro-Assad website Al-Masdar, destroyed six ancient Mig-23 fighter jets. The military actions that followed the attack have been documented by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which gathers reports from sources on the ground and tries to corroborate them.

There was barely an interruption at Shayrat. Later that day, regime warplanes based there struck Islamic State positions in the eastern countryside of Homs. Khan Shayhun was also struck with an air-to-ground missile, though “it is not known yet whether it was Russian or it belongs to the regime,” SOHR said.

On April 15, it became clear that the 87 people reportedly killed in the gas attack, which the U.S. rushed to attribute to Assad before any international investigation could even begin, would be far from the last victims.

Syrian and Russian planes raided the countryside in the Idlib and Hama provinces more than 150 times. Khan Shaykhun was among the towns that were hit "with bombs, rockets and projectiles that fell in the form of mass of flames on the targeted areas, causing the outbreak of fire in them." On April 17, Khan Shaykhun and its surroundings suffered more strikes. On April 18, the south of Idlib province, not far from Khan Shaykhun, was targeted again, and a large family including nine children was reported killed. On the same day, the Assad regime also hammered the Northern countryside of Hama provice, also close to Khan Shaykhun, and barrel bombs were reportedly dropped on a town about 15 miles away.

No use of chemical weapons came up in the reports, and casualty counts are unavailable, But incendiaries, barrel bombs and missiles can do just as much damage to civilians as gas -- which Assad didn't necessarily use or intend to use in the future, anyway. The U.S. strike has done nothing to deter the vicious bombing of the areas in south Idlib and north Hama, which are controlled by moderate rebel and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. The regime, having sustained negligible losses from the Tomahawks, went about the business of trying to recover lost territory, and it did so with a vengeance.

Its Russian support in the area didn't diminish, either. At an April 11 briefing, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy said that "the Russian Aerospace Forces continue supporting the Syrian army and militia detachments, which are fighting against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra groupings"; Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, based in Idlib.

For its part, the U.S. military went ahead with its own priorities in Syria. On April 18 and 19, for example, the U.S. conducted 21 strikes in Syria, all against Islamic State targets. Airwars, a group that tracks bombing activity in Syria, reports that alleged civilian casualties from the coalition raids on Syria and Iraq have reached 637 so far this month, the second highest since Trump took office after pledging to eliminate ISIS. The U.S. has clearly stepped up its efforts toward that goal, conducting more airstrikes in Syria and -- as a consequence -- inflicting more collateral damage. 

In other words, since Trump ordered the Tomahawk strike on Shayrat, the major players in the Syrian conflict have gone about their business as if nothing had happened. It's a relief that the action didn't lead to a direct clash between Russian and U.S. militaries -- but then, their priorities are still aligned on ISIS.

The Shayrat missile attack could be confidently written off as a relatively minor waste of U.S. resources and a major hot air eruption -- if its only effect were in Syria. Trump, however, is fighting a domestic political battle, too. The Tomahawks have wreaked much more havoc in the U.S. media than in Shayrat, ruining the established narrative of Trump's alignment with Vladimir Putin. Trump's son, Eric, has said the missile attack was proof that his father wasn't in league with Putin.

If jaded U.S. pundits haven't quite adopted Eric Trump's view, headlines about Trump's alleged Russian ties have given way to analyses of his unpredictable flip-flops. It has been noted that Trump is willing to go further to defend his "red lines" than Barack Obama was, and speculation has been rife that he's going to be more of a traditional Republican president than most people expected. His voter base is certainly worried that this might be the case.

As one of Trump's habitual diversions, the Shayrat strike has succeeded brilliantly. Analysts are struggling to read Trump instead of mocking him. He's getting praise from people who used to dismiss him, including some former Obama aides. And as for the voter base, there's plenty of time until the next election to worry about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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