Assad Must Be Held Accountable for All Types of Terror

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US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter launched missiles at a Syrian air base from the Mediterranean Sea on April 7. US President Donald J. Trump ordered the strikes in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria, which has been blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. (Ford Williams/Courtesy US Navy/Handout via Reuters)

US missile strikes on a Syrian air base from where a deadly chemical weapons attack is believed to have been launched send a clear message that the United States is now “directly engaged” in addressing the mass homicide perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“The president’s top priority in Syria will continue to be the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, but in the wake of the chemical attack, the president realized that the Bashar al-Assad side of this problem is closely related to his top priority,” said Hof, noting that Assad’s brutal crackdown has helped recruitment for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Hof, who served as special adviser for transition in Syria in US President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012, has been calling for a stronger US response to the war in Syria, both in and out of government. The war, which erupted in March 2011, has killed more than 450,000 people and created more than five million refugees.

The US missile strike on April 7 followed a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the western Idlib province, on April 4—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime denies the US accusation that it carried out the attack. The attack killed more than seventy people. Many of the victims were children.

US President Donald J. Trump, a onetime opponent of bombing Syria, said he ordered the strike because it is in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

The Pentagon announced that fifty-nine Tomahawk Cruise missiles had struck Al Shayrat air base. The missiles were launched from two destroyers—USS Porter and USS Ross—in the Mediterranean Sea. The missiles targeted Syrian fighter jets, hardened aircraft shelters, radar equipment, ammunition bunkers, sites for storing fuel, and air-defense systems.

The US intelligence community has made the assessment that chemical weapons were stored at Al Shayrat air base and that aircraft from the base conducted the April 4 chemical weapons attack.

The missile strikes should not be a one-off event, said Hof. “If this is a one-off event, fire-and-forget retaliation against a single incident, it will prove useless; it will prove ineffective and history will record it as such,” he said.

“The challenge for this administration is to end the Assad regime’s free ride for mass homicide… Ending the free ride is not dependent on a specific kind of munition—it doesn’t have to be chemical in nature; ending that free ride has to be an essential part of an emerging American strategy toward Syria as a whole,” he added.

The Trump administration notified Russia, which is providing military support to the Assad regime, in advance of the strikes. Russia responded to the strikes by pulling out of a deconfliction agreement with the United States, which was used to share information about anti-ISIS coalition warplane missions over Syria.

The US missile strikes may have raised the risk of conflict with Russia.

Noting that there are “always risks whenever one undertakes a military operation anywhere,” Hof said it is of critical importance for Washington and Moscow to have close communication on all aspects of the crisis in Syria.

“I would not rule out the possibility that Moscow was shocked and surprised by its client’s resort to chemical weapons, especially in view of the fact that Russia and Iran have made such a huge effort to put Bashar al-Assad in a very advantageous position, both politically and military,” he said.

Obama was criticized for not responding militarily after the Syrian regime crossed his red line on the use of chemical weapons in 2013. One of the reasons the former US president was reluctant to act was that he wanted to first get the US Congress on board. Questions are now being raised about the legality of Trump’s missile strikes.

“This is a somewhat difficult and complex circle to square,” said Hof. “On the one hand, I think the president came to the conclusion that the need for speed in responding to this horrific outrage was manifest. There is a good deal of justice in the president’s analysis of this.”

“On the other hand, we do have a constitution and I think it is incumbent on the president of the United States now to consult fully with Congress, even if in this case it is ex post facto, but more importantly to consult closely with members of Congress on an emerging national security strategy for Syria that addresses the problem presented by Syria in its full dimensions—not just the Islamic State, not just al Qaeda, but the Assad regime as well,” he added.

Frederic C. Hof spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: The US missile strikes in Syria have been described as reckless and resolute. What message do you believe they send?

Hof: The strikes send a message that the United States is now directly engaged in addressing the problem of Assad regime mass terror, mass homicide, and the effects of those activities on the problem of violent extremism in the region.

The president’s top priority in Syria will continue to be the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, but in the wake of the chemical attack, the president realized that the Bashar al-Assad side of this problem is closely related to his top priority.

Q: How should the Trump administration follow up on these strikes? Is removing Assad from power the next step?

Hof: If this is a one-off event, fire-and-forget retaliation against a single incident, it will prove useless; it will prove ineffective and history will record it as such. The challenge for this administration is to end the Assad regime’s free ride for mass homicide. That free ride creates recruits for some of the worst actors in the Middle East. It has caused the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.

Ending the free ride is not dependent on a specific kind of munition—it doesn’t have to be chemical in nature; ending that free ride has to be an essential part of an emerging American strategy toward Syria as a whole.

Q: How do you end that free ride?

Hof: You end the free ride by making it clear to Assad that when he attempts to engage in acts of mass homicide there will be a price to pay. The price might be similar to the price he paid [on April 7].

Q: This includes the regime’s use of barrel bombs?

Hof: It includes all weapons of terror that this murderous regime employs, whether it is barrel bombs, gravity bombs, artillery shells, or mortar rounds.

Q: One of the reasons President Obama had hesitated to strike Syria in 2013 was that he wanted to get Congress on board. Questions are now being raised about the legality of the strikes conducted on April 7. Can you speak to these concerns?

Hof: This is a somewhat difficult and complex circle to square. On the one hand, I think the president came to the conclusion that the need for speed in responding to this horrific outrage was manifest. There is a good deal of justice in the president’s analysis of this.

On the other hand, we do have a constitution and I think it is incumbent on the president of the United States now to consult fully with Congress, even if in this case it is ex post facto, but more importantly to consult closely with members of Congress on an emerging national security strategy for Syria that addresses the problem presented by Syria in its full dimensions—not just the Islamic State, not just al Qaeda, but the Assad regime as well. These are all violent extremists.

Q: Russia is providing military support to the Assad regime. It has responded to the US strikes by pulling out of a deconfliction agreement. Have the strikes heightened the risk of a military escalation with Russia?

Hof: There are always risks whenever one undertakes a military operation anywhere. The need for close communication with Moscow now on all aspects of this crisis is heightened. I would not rule out the possibility that Moscow was shocked and surprised by its client’s resort to chemical weapons, especially in view of the fact that Russia and Iran have made such a huge effort to put Bashar al-Assad in a very advantageous position, both politically and military.

I have no doubt that Russia knows the facts of what happened on April 4, notwithstanding the story it is trying to sell publicly about chemical weapons factories and so forth. I would not rule out the possibility that Russia was not terribly upset [by the US strikes], nevertheless, for appearances’ sake Russia needs to make several gestures officially to demonstrate displeasure. The truth will be known during the course of consultations between Washington and Moscow.

Q: Syrian anti-aircraft guns had largely ignored coalition jets until now. Is there a risk that coalition jets will now be targeted? What impact is this likely to have on the anti-ISIS coalition?

Hof: My expectation would be that if Syrian anti-aircraft were to begin to lock onto coalition aircraft, or even to engage coalition aircraft, President Bashar al-Assad would discover that he has made yet another big mistake.

Q: What impact is this likely to have on President Trump’s war on ISIS?

Hof: The impact on the war on ISIS will be positive. To the extent that Bashar al-Assad can be dissuaded from acts of collective punishment and mass homicide, it dries up a pretty lucrative source of recruiting, not only for ISIS but for al Qaeda in Syria.

I think President Trump recognizes now the connection between Assad’s behavior on the one hand and the ability of ISIS and al Qaeda to live long and prosper on the other.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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Assad Must Be Held Accountable for All Types of Terror

by Frederic C. Hof time to read: 7 min
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