Five questions for Trump on Syria

Five questions for Trump on Syria
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President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE’s decision to strike a Syrian airfield capped a week where the world was jolted by images of men, women and children in the country killed by sarin gas.

It was the first time the U.S. military had intentionally struck the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, a dramatic action that appeared to be a remarkable shift from a president who had campaigned as a noninterventionist. 

But as the world comes to grips with the U.S. action, questions remain about the overall strategy and the White House’s intentions.

Here are the five biggest questions going forward.

Will there be more U.S. airstrikes against regime targets?

Trump administration officials have billed the firing of 59 Tomahawk missile at Shayrat — the airfield where Syria is suspected to have launched the sarin attack — as a one-time event, though they are keeping the door open to more military action.


"The United States took a very measured step last night," U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley said Friday at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. "We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary." 

Senators leaving a closed door briefing Friday also indicated they expect Thursday’s strikes to be a one-time action, but that more could come if the Syrians and the Russians don’t take the message.

“This was planned as a one-time strike depending of course on the reactions of the Syrians and the Russians,” Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - 2024 GOPers goal: Tread carefully, don't upset Trump MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the briefing by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. “But this was planned as a one-time operation to deal with the chemical weapons, not to deal with the problems of Syria.” 

Does Syrian President Bashar Assad launch more chemical weapons attacks?

Strikes on one airfield won’t do much to degrade Assad’s capabilities.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ reported that regime forces launched jets from Shayrat later Friday. 

But those who support the strikes say their hopeful the U.S. strike will cause Assad to think twice before carrying out another attack with chemical weapons.

“It’s always good for our adversaries to say to themselves, what am I going to do that would provoke Donald Trump into action,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a useful tool to encourage to self deterrence.”

On Friday, some senators echoed the deterrence argument.

“I just think this deters them,” Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection MORE (D-W.V.) said after the briefing when asked about further action.

What is the broader Syria strategy? 

Trump made a 180-degree turn on Syria in a matter of days. After saying throughout the campaign and into his first weeks as president that the United States should focus on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and not Assad, Trump said he was compelled into action by gruesome images from the chemical attack. 

Now, Congress wants Trump’s broader strategy, something that senators said was absent from Friday’s briefing with Dunford.

“I don’t think that’s really the purpose of this briefing,” Cardin said. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.) said the process of crafting a Syria strategy started before the chemical attack and is ongoing.

“The process of a Syria strategy is an ongoing process that they’ve been undertaking for quite a while,” he said. “The events of the fourth of April got ahead of that process and this is a response to that, but the process of a strategy is an ongoing internal process that they’ve been developing and taking input on for some time, and I don’t think that’s complete yet.” 

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John CornynJohn CornynGOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal MORE (Texas), said Vice President Pence will brief members on the larger strategy “very soon.”

Will Congress take up a war authorization?

Calls for lawmakers to pass a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) — an effort that has stalled for years — picked up again after Thursday’s strikes.

Most lawmakers believe Trump had the legal authority to carry out Thursday’s strikes. They cited the president’s constitutional ability to respond to imminent threats and the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs. But other say Trump needed an AUMF for Thursday’s operation.

And most agree Trump would need authorization for sustained operations against Assad. 

“In the event there’s going to be extended efforts against the regime, that would require an AUMF,” said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under whose purview the authorization would fall.

But it’s far from certain Congress would actually vote on one, and if they did, whether it would pass.

President Obama requested an AUMF for the ISIS fight, but Congress never took it up amid disagreements about how restrictive it should be. Obama also requested an AUMF for a 10-hour operation against Assad in 2013, but it, too, was never taken up by the full Congress and did not have the votes to pass.

“They weren't voting on ISIS when they had near unanimity on wanting to do something,” said Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFive things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries Up next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators MORE (R-Ky.), who says Thursday’s strikes were unconstitutional. “They wouldn't even take a vote on that. … Virtually no one in Congress cares about the Constitution when it comes to war.” 

How much danger do the American troops in Syria face?

There are about 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground fighting ISIS in Syria who could be a risk of being targeted by Russia or the regime after Thursday’s strikes. 

The Pentagon said it took measures to protect U.S. forces during the airstrikes, but that operations remain normal in the aftermath.

“Our main concern is making sure we've got safety of out U.S. troops that are in Syria right now,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters at a briefing. “We don’t have any indications at this point that there’s been any escalatory or any attacks or intelligence of any retribution attacks on U.S. forces. We’ve classified as normal operations right now, post this attack. It's something that obviously we'll watch daily as we go through this time period.” 

Still, there are questions about the long-term safety of U.S. troops after Russia announced it would stop using a communications line with the U.S. and deploy more air defenses to Syria.

The so-called de-confliction line was established in October 2015 after Russian air forces intervened in the Syrian civil war. It was meant to prevent midair incidents between Russian and U.S. pilots after a few close calls, and the two countries’ militaries have used it regularly since. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry said early Friday it was suspending the agreement that set up the channel. The Pentagon responded by saying that wasn’t true, but the Russian Defense Ministry insisted it was and that communication would end at the stroke of midnight Saturday.

“The information given by the American media agencies that the Russian Defense Ministry ‘keeps’ the communication channels with representatives from the Pentagon within the memorandum on prevention of incidents and providing security during operations in the air space of Syria is not true,” the ministry said.