WASHINGTON — The cruise missile strikes on Syria ordered by President Trump Thursday night appear limited to punishing Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons without escalating the country's long and brutal civil war.
By hitting Syrian military targets, Trump aims to prevent Assad from repeating chemical attacks. The strikes by dozens of missiles marked the first time the U.S. military intentionally attacked Assad's regime and came two days after 86 people, including 27 children, died from what has been determined to be a lethal nerve gas.
"The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Trump appears to be betting that Syria will not retaliate and that Assad's chief military allies, Russia and Iran, also will refrain from responding. Iranian militias are in Syria and Russia has been backing the Assad regime with military strikes since 2015. Russia's intervention has turned the tide of the six-year-old civil war in Assad's favor.
The U.S. military notified Russian forces of the strike before it was launched, Davis said. The U.S. military used an already established communications line that had been created to avoid a mishap between U.S. and Russian aircraft flying over Syria.
A limited strike also reduces the chance of drawing the U.S. into another major war or causing Assad's regime to collapse, creating a power vacuum that could be filled by the Islamic State or other extremists in Syria.
"U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield," Davis said.
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The U.S.-led coalition is conducting strikes in Syria against the Islamic State, which opposes the regime, but until now, the U.S. has been careful to avoid direct attacks on Syrian forces.
Assad’s regime will likely survive the strikes, and the Syrian leader may bide his time, hoping that Trump will soon turn his attention to a crisis elsewhere.
The limited response highlights the dilemma that Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, have faced as Syria spiraled further into civil war. The Trump administration, like Obama, has called for Assad to leave but there is no indication the Syrian strongman will do so voluntarily.
Assad launched a chemical attack in 2013 on the outskirts of Damascus that killed more than 1,000 people. Obama said Assad's use of chemical weapons crossed a "red line," but he refrained from taking military action. Instead, Assad later agreed to a plan to destroy the regime's chemical weapons and stockpiles.
Forcing a sudden collapse of his regime would lead to further chaos and the administration prefers to pursue diplomacy to remove Assad from power. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said removing Assad would require an international effort.
Yet even a limited military attack raises a host of risks. Once military power is unleashed it is difficult to predict what will happen.
The U.S. military has several hundred troops in the country who are supporting anti-Assad forces fighting the Islamic State. The U.S. forces are not near any Syrian military targets, but a U.S. strike could provoke a Syrian retaliation against them.