The White House took roughly a week to retaliate against the Syrian regime for a gas attack on a rebel-held city as Trump was distracted by the FBI’s raid on the home, hotel and office of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, the ongoing negotiations over Nafta and his burgeoning war against Amazon.
While Trump alienated much of his noninterventionist base by ordering the strikes, it also appears that the president somehow resisted the temptation to go full neocon – opting instead for the most mild, and least costly, of the alternatives presented to him by Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The decision “marked the first substantive test of the group now that John Bolton is serving as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser,” per WSJ.
After days of tense White House meetings, the president and his advisers agreed on one of the most restrained of the military-strike options crafted by the Pentagon: a powerful missile attack aimed at three targets meant to hobble the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons and deter President Bashar al-Assad from using them again.
While world leaders across the West applauded the strikes (even when they had declined to participate, as Italy and Germany did), the Syrian military said its air defenses had intercepted 71 out of 103 cruise missiles launched during the coalition assault.
Ultimately, Trump decided on the most conservative option for a strike against three buildings that comprised what Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie described as “the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program.”
The weapons presented to the president included the following:
The most conservative option would have hit a narrow set of targets related to Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities.
The second option proposed strikes on a broader set of Syrian regime targets, including suspected chemical-weapons research facilities and military command centers.
The most expansive proposal, which might have included strikes on Russian air defenses in Syria, was designed to cripple the regime’s military capabilities without touching Mr. Assad’s political machinery.
The most ambitious of the proposals was three times the size of the one eventually carried out by U.S., British and French forces.
Eventually, Trump approved a hybrid plan that constituted a melding of the first two options: modest missile strikes that targeted what are believed to be the country’s chemical weapons manufacturing facilities.
Trump pressed his team to also consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria if necessary following reports that Assad had moved planes to Russian facilities to help protect them. But Mattis pushed back, those familiar with the decision-making said. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley joined Trump in advocating for a forceful response, while Mattis warned about the risks that a more expansive strike could trigger a dangerous response from Moscow and Tehran.
It’s believed that, for now at least, Bolton has decided to hang back and defer to Mattis, believing that Trump has
Mr. Bolton knew the respect Mr. Trump had for Mr. Mattis, and he may have decided that it was wise to defer initially to the Pentagon chief after he started the job, according to the people familiar with the decision-making. When the two first met at the Pentagon a few weeks ago, Mr. Mattis jokingly told Mr. Bolton that he had heard he was “the devil incarnate,” a reputation the new national security chief understood followed him into the West Wing.
Mr. Bolton also realized that the most robust option might drag the U.S. more deeply into the conflict and force him to take responsibility for a greater U.S. role in the civil war, according to the people familiar with the decision-making. He felt that was too much for his first week on the job, they said.
The White House has insisted that Trump has no intention of pulling troops out of Syria, despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s claim that he had convinced Trump to keep an American presence in Syria for the long term.
Furthermore, with a range of viewpoints represented among members of Trump’s national security team, the consensus view has become more much more moderate.
The eventual U.S. decision was the work of a national-security team still taking shape. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo has been nominated to become Mr. Trump’s second secretary of state, replacing Rex Tillerson, who was an ally of Mr. Mattis in previous administration national-security debates. Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, nominated to replace Mr. Pompeo, is bracing for tough questions from senators about her role in overseeing harsh post-Sept. 11 interrogation techniques.
Like Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo is also widely viewed as favoring an assertive foreign policy. When he appeared before senators last week for his confirmation hearing, Mr. Pompeo said his image as a military hawk was mistaken.
Still, Messrs. Bolton and Pompeo are aligned in wanting to take a more forceful approach toward Iran and North Korea, two of America’s most troubling adversaries.
With so much at stake in the coming months – Trump’s tentatively planned meeting with North Korea and his final decision on whether to pull the US out of the Iran deal are just two of the priorities – Trump’s national security team has apparently decided that the most cautious approach when it comes to Syria is probably the best approach. After all, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has made abundantly clear in his rhetoric, Russia wouldn’t hesitate to respond with force if tensions in Syria continue to escalate.