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Continued bombing by Assad shows limits of single U.S. attack

By: Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria, The Washington Post
April 8, 2017 Updated: April 8, 2017 at 8:04 pm
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Smoke billows after a reported airstrike April 8, 2017, on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images)

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump on Saturday praised the U.S. military for carrying out the missile attack on a Syrian airfield and struck back at mounting questions over whether it would help achieve a momentum shift in Syria’s bloody civil war.

In an afternoon tweet, Trump defended the operation against criticism from some members of Congress and military analysts that the nighttime volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles two days earlier did not target the runways at the Shayrat air base in eastern Syria.

President Trump speaks April 6 at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., after the U.S. military fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria. (Alex Brandon/AP) 

Administration officials have said the attack successfully destroyed refueling stations, hangars and some planes, effectively making the base inoperable.

“The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” Trump wrote on Twitter from Mar-a-Lago after playing a round at the nearby Trump International Golf Club. The president is spending the weekend here after completing a two-day summit at his winter estate with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In an earlier message, Trump offered: “Congratulations to our great military men and women for representing the United States, and the world, so well in the Syria attack.”

The White House has sought to cast the mission — which came in response to evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had carried out an attack on civilians with the nerve agent sarin — as a major success in putting Assad on notice that he can no longer use such weapons without consequences. Officials announced Saturday that Trump had spoken with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who offered support for his decision.

But Saturday brought fresh reminders that a single U.S. attack would hardly dissuade Assad from his brutal campaign to crush a six-year rebellion that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Residents in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun, where at least 86 people had been killed in the sarin attack, reported that Syrian warplanes had returned and dropped new conventional bombs.

Since a U.S. Navy destroyer launched the missiles early Friday in Syria, the Trump administration has struggled to explain how the attack — which came four years after President Barack Obama chose not to strike Assad unilaterally after a similar use of chemical weapons — fits into its broader policy on Syria and the Middle East.

Trump aides said that they could not unequivocally rule out future strikes against Assad’s forces, but they cautioned that the president’s decision did not signal a broader ramping up of U.S. military engagement on the ground.

In a letter to Congress on Saturday, Trump said his aim was to “degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons, thereby promoting the stability of the region and averting a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian catastrophe.”

Senior administration officials have acknowledged that the targeted operation did not eliminate Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks. And Trump, who has attempted to enact a ban on Syrians and those in five other majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States, has not indicated that he is willing to accept more Syrians who are fleeing violence.

Meanwhile, the administration is nearing completion of a review of long-term strategy to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which remains the priority over removing Assad from power. A fully developed proposal is expected to be delivered to Trump’s desk in the near future, a senior administration official said.

Among the questions being considered is what level of military support to give Syrian rebel forces, potential military cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State, how to deal with meddling in the region by Iran and what to do about fighting between Turkish government forces and autonomous Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Of the U.S. missile strike on Assad, the senior official said: “We don’t yet know if this is a one-time effort or not. We can’t predict what may or may not happen.”

Read the full story at The Washington Post.