April 9, 2018 | Policy Brief

Assad Chemical Attack Shows Failure of U.S. Deterrence

April 9, 2018 | Policy Brief

Assad Chemical Attack Shows Failure of U.S. Deterrence

Precisely a year and a day after the U.S. punished the Syrian regime with missile strikes for its use of chemical weapons, Damascus launched a new round of chemical attacks that killed at least 40 civilians in the besieged city of Douma east of the capital. Although last year’s punitive strikes deterred Assad for several months, he began probing U.S. resolve earlier this year with a series of chlorine attacks that prompted no response, thus exposing the inconsistency of American deterrence.

Whereas Assad employed sarin, an illegal nerve agent, in the April 2017 attack that provoked U.S. retaliation, the attacks on Saturday and earlier this year apparently employed chlorine, whose use as a weapon is prohibited, yet which has many legitimate industrial purposes. By punishing the use of sarin but responding with warnings alone to the use of chlorine, the U.S. conveyed to Assad that he could use chlorine with impunity. While sarin is far more lethal than chlorine, Saturday’s attack demonstrated that chlorine could also kill scores of victims quite rapidly.

Just days prior to Saturday’s attack, President Trump underscored his apparent lack of concern about Syria by calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops deployed there to fight the Islamic State. Similarly, in the days leading up to the sarin attack last April, the U.S. secretary of state and ambassador to the UN both indicated that the U.S. would no longer work to remove Assad from power.

While it is difficult to assess the factors that influence the timing of Assad’s atrocities, he seems to pay close attention to statements suggesting that the U.S. will not hold him accountable for his crimes. What Assad apparently fails to understand is that when he escalates his brutality, the suffering that follows may lead the president and his advisers to reconsider their policies. In this instance, Trump denounced “Animal Assad” as “sick” and said there would be a “Big price to pay.”

The president’s comments raise the prospect of renewed punitive strikes on Assad. Last year’s missile barrage destroyed a number of Syrian aircraft. Although artillery can also deliver chemical weapons, it would still make sense for potential U.S. strikes to destroy the remainder of Assad’s aircraft as well as his helicopter force, both of which are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians via conventional and unconventional means.

Saturday’s attack should also lead the president to reconsider his demand that U.S. troops withdraw from Syria within several months. While those troops’ mission is to destroy the Islamic State, their presence restrains Assad in two important ways. First, U.S. troops and their local partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces currently control the overwhelming majority of oil production sites in Syria, which would generate billions of dollars of revenue each year for Assad if he were to retake them and begin pumping oil again. Second, as long as the U.S. has a base of operations in Syria, Assad will have to weigh carefully whether any of his provocations will provoke a devastating response.

In his recent comments on Twitter, the president offered unusual criticism of Russia and Iran for their role in enabling Assad’s atrocities. Only by ensuring that all U.S. policies toward the region reflect the need to neutralize Moscow and Tehran’s influence, can the president reduce the likelihood of future atrocities while protecting our national interests.

David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.