Was Donald Trump's attack on Syria the opening salvo of a broader campaign to topple Bashar al-Assad? Will Congress get a say? Is it really possible that Democrats are backing up the president more than some of his core supporters?
Trump's decision to launch 59 cruise missiles at an airfield Thursday night in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians ratchets up the intensity of a complicated regional conflict, increases the risk of clashes with Russia, and will generate a vigorous debate about the U.S. role.
This could play out in a myriad of ways. Here are 13 unknowns at this hour:
1. Does the president plan to deploy more than just Tomahawks?
Trump described the strike as "targeted" during a three-minute address from Mar-a-Lago, where he's meeting with the leader of China. "It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," he said.
At a briefing for reporters afterward, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described it as a "proportional" response. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster emphasized efforts to minimize the risks of accidentally breaching a supply of sarin gas.
Thursday night's attack also involved only missiles that can be launched from Navy destroyers up to 1,000 miles away from the target. Fighter planes would have had to contend with Syrian air defenses and potentially more advanced types of surface-to-air missiles provided by Russia. These might have put the lives of U.S. pilots in danger. The missiles have been used successfully since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but our Checkpoint blog notes that Tomahawks also have less explosive yield than larger bombs carried by manned aircraft.
2. Does Trump fully grasp the risks he has just taken?
"Within the administration, some officials urged immediate action against Assad, warning against what one described as 'paralysis through analysis.' But others were concerned about second- and third-order effects," according to Pentagon reporters Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. "The attack may put hundreds of American troops now stationed in Syria in greater danger. They are advising local forces in advance of a major assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital."
Launching missiles was the easy part. "The big problem is what comes next," writes Greg Jaffe. "The military had been preparing options for a strike against (Assad) since well before 2013, when the Syrian dictator killed more than 1,000 of his own people in a devastating nerve gas attack. The biggest difference between when Barack Obama last threatened airstrikes against Assad and today is that the risks of widening the conflict are much greater. . . . Today, Russian troops are intermingled with Syrian forces, and any strike on a Syrian military target could also produce Russian military casualties."
3. What is Trump's goal with intervention? No one from the administration has yet articulated what they want the end game to be. Just last week, Tillerson said the Syrian people would decide the fate of Assad. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said removing Assad from power was no longer a priority. White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this week defended that position by saying it's necessary to accept the "political reality" on the ground.
At his briefing Thursday night, Tillerson confusingly warned against reading too much into the bombings. "This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for," the secretary said. "I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status." What exactly does he mean by that? Is it still not a U.S. priority to take out Assad? Spicer cut off questioning before anyone could follow up.
4. What does this mean for the U.S. fight against ISIS? As Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it: "Trump has said repeatedly that his objective in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Thursday night's strike was aimed at a different objective. President Trump needs to articulate a coherent strategy for dealing with this complex conflict, because the consequences of a misstep are grave."
5. How do the strikes impact Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin?
Russia retaliated Friday morning by pulling out of an agreement to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft operating over Syria. "The Kremlin's decision to suspend the 2015 memorandum of understanding on the air operations immediately raised tensions in the skies over Syria," David Filipov reports from Moscow. "Putin's spokesman said the risk of confrontation between aerial assets of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and Russia has 'significantly increased.'"
Though unclear on the broader strategy, Tillerson had tough words for Russia at Mar-a-Lago Thursday night. He recalled the 2013 agreement with Syria to hand over its chemical stockpile, which called for Russia to monitor that Assad not cheat. "Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility on that commitment. Either Russia has been complicit or has been incompetent on its ability to deliver," said Tillerson, who was already scheduled to visit Moscow next week.
Despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed the Syrian government has no chemical weapons. He also said Putin sees the missile launches as an attempt to distract attention from the heavy civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-backed offensive to capture Mosul from ISIS.
Adirect confrontation with Russia, even if accidental, is now more likely. This back-and-forth could prompt Trump to recalibrate his position toward Putin, potentially taking a more aggressive posture. The U.S. intervention, on the other, might also make Russia more willing to negotiate a deal to end the civil war and remove Assad. You never know.
6. Will Iran wade more deeply into the Syrian conflict now? Along with Russia, Tehran has long backed Assad and denounced the U.S. airstrikes. "The Shiite theocracy's state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman describing the attacks as 'dangerous, destructive and a violation of international laws to use it as an excuse to take unilateral actions,'" Sudarsan Raghavan reports from Cairo. The question is what they do about it. Bibi Netanyahu praised the bombings from Jerusalem, naturally, as did the Saudis in Riyadh and the Turkish president's spokesman in Istanbul.
In Europe, despite their frosty relationships with the new U.S. president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Fran├žois Hollande backed Trump's actions. Britain also offered backing but said it would not participate if asked. (In 2013, the House of Commons blocked a request from David Cameron to support the U.S. effort.)
7. Will the U.S. Congress vote to authorize force?
Nancy Pelosi put out a press release Friday morning calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to cancel the Easter recess and call the House back into session to debate an "Authorization of the Use of Military Force" for the action taken in Syria. Several rank-and-file Democrats joined her.
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong responded that there are no changes to the schedule. She pointed to Ryan's statement Thursday night. "This action was appropriate and just," the Speaker said.
Mitch McConnell, also offering support for Trump's decision, scheduled a briefing for all 100 senators on the attack later Friday. Aides say the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford, will speak at the closed-door session.
Several prominent Republican senators called for Congress to take up the issue immediately:
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah: "If the United States is to increase our use of military force in Syria, we should follow the Constitution and seek the proper authorization from Congress. President Trump should make his case in front of the American people and allow their elected representatives to debate the benefits and risks of further Middle East intervention to our national security interests. I stand ready to stay in Washington, or come back to Washington, in order to properly consider any further military action and the national security interests of the American people."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.: "While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The President needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate. Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: "Any military action in Syria must be justified as protecting the vital national security interests of America . . . and I look forward to our Commander-in-Chief making the case to Congress and the American people how we should do so in the days ahead."
Sen. Ben Sasse , R-Neb.: "The president should propose to Congress a comprehensive strategy to protect American interests from a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize our regional allies and create vacuums for jihadi sanctuaries."
Senate Democrats also want to take up the issue. This has long been a top issue for Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president, and he reiterated that:
Many on both sides are pointing to these Trump tweets from four years ago, when he insisted Obama go to Congress before striking Syria:
"What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval," Trump posted in 2013.
And a day later: "The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!"
8. How many Democrats give air cover to Trump? There's been reflective, kneejerk opposition from the left to pretty much everything Trump has done since he took office in January, but this is war. Will some leaders of the opposition rally around the flag and the commander-in-chief?
Hillary Clinton supported a no-fly zone over Syria during the campaign last year, putting her in a more hawkish place than Obama. Speaking in New York yesterday, she called on Trump to take out Assad's air force. "Assad has an air force, and that air force is the cause of most of these civilian deaths as we have seen over the years and as we saw again in the last few days," the former secretary of said at a "Women in the World" summit, per CNN. "And I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them." She added that if she were in power, she would tell Russia they were either "with us or against us" on the no-fly zone. "It is time," she said, "the Russians were afraid of us because we were going to stand up for the rights, the human rights, the dignity and the future of the Syrian people."
Pelosi, despite calling for recess to be canceled, described the strike as "a proportional response to the regime's use of chemical weapons." She said she is mostly worried about escalation from here.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor Friday morning, "Making sure that Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do. It is now incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a coherent strategy and consult with Congress."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the number two in Senate Democratic leadership, also offered measured support: "My preliminary briefing by the White House indicated that this was a measured response to the Syrian nerve gas atrocity. Any further action will require close scrutiny by Congress, and any escalation beyond airstrikes or missile strikes will require engaging the American people in that decision."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is up for reelection next year, also offered support: "I support the admin's strike on the air base that launched the chemical attack. I hope this teaches Assad not to use chemical weapons again."
9. How many conservatives who opposed Obama's effort to bomb Syria now support Trump doing the same? How will they justify their flip-flops?
Marco Rubio voted against authorizing the U.S. to take action against Assad four years ago. He's defended his vote by saying, "(Obama) was proposing what they called pinprick strikes, basically a symbolic strike to send a message, but not backed up by a clear plan."
Thursday night, the Florida senator praised Trump for what could arguably be called a pinprick strike. "Tonight's actions show the days of being able to attack with impunity when it comes to Assad are over," Rubio said on CNN.
About 100 House Republicans signed a letter in the summer of 2013 that suggested it would be unconstitutional for Obama to order any military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons without getting congressional approval first.
10. How effectively will Trump sell his own reversal on airstrikes? The president has said seeing images of lifeless children galvanized him to change his mind about Syria. But there were painfully similar, horrifying photos three years ago as he tweeted these messages:
11. Was the president really a hawk in dove's clothing all along?
"Trump abruptly sheds his noninterventionist fa├žade" is how Aaron Blake wrote up Thursday night's news. "It's likely that the noninterventionist promises Trump made during the campaign helped him by allaying some of the greatest fears about making him president and commander in chief. Arguably his biggest liability was that people - even many supporters - believed he lacked the proper temperament to be president. The prospect of the hotheaded, itchy-Twitter-fingered reality TV star having access to the nuclear codes was an attack ad that wrote itself. But Trump's promises to stay out of the Middle East and focus on the homeland mitigated that line of attack. Voters were led to believe his foreign policy wouldn't be on the same hair trigger that everything else about him seemed to be, and it gave them license to instead focus on what a businessman president could do for the economy. Yet here we are. Less than three months into his presidency, Trump has now responded to a not-unprecedented set of circumstances in Syria with an unprecedented degree of force and provocation."
From the former CIA officer who ran for president as a conservative alternative to Trump last year: "I support stopping Assad's atrocities, but it's unnerving that Trump changed his position on striking Syria 180 degrees in only 24 hours," Evan McMullin posted.
A good question from a Post foreign affairs columnist:
"So is Trump now a liberal humanitarian interventionalist or a neocon unilateralist? Discuss," tweeted Joh Rogin.
12. Will some of Trump's diehard supporters from the fever swamps of the alt-right turn on him because of Syria?
"Across the Internet, an alternative take on the horrific attack . . . has begun to spread," Adam Taylor reports. "It was a 'false flag,' the theory goes, designed to trick Trump into intervening more forcefully in the Syrian war. Those spreading this theory are often closely linked to the 'alt-right,' a small, far right movement whose members are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view. One of the most notorious figures associated with the movement, Mike Cernovich, posted tweets on Wednesday claiming that the gut-wrenching footage of victims of the attack had been faked. Cernovich's messages about Syria have found an audience. They have been retweeted several thousand times by his 245,000 followers - even though the California-based Internet personality acknowledged that he didn't know much about the situation. . . . Just in the past week, both Donald Trump Jr. and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have praised Cernovich - Trump's son suggested that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer."
InfoWars and WikiLeaks, which have boosted Trump, are also getting in on the fringe and unfounded conspiracy theories that this was all staged to trick Trump into going to war in the Middle East.
This guy works with InfoWars, the site run by Alex Jones:
"I guess Trump wasn't "Putin's puppet" after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I'm officially OFF the Trump train," tweeted Paul Joseph Watson.
Another alt-right Trump supporter, who goes by the pen named Baked Alaska, added:
"People praising the Syria attack: "-Hillary
"People against the attack:
"-Real Trump Supporters"
Several other well-known Trump allies are publicly expressing frustration:
- Pundit Ann Coulter: "Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast. Said it always helps our enemies & creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV."
- Laura Ingraham: "Missiles flying. Rubio's happy. McCain ecstatic. Hillary's on board. A complete policy change in 48 hrs."
Nigel Farage, the champion of Brexit who traveled the country with Trump during the campaign, spoke out against Trump's first major military decision. Perhaps Farage will turn out to be a bigger fan of Putin, whose propaganda television network RT he often appears on, than Trump:
"Many Trump voters will be worried about this military intervention. Where will it end?" he posted.
13. Finally, what impact, if any, will military intervention have on the debate about Trump's refugee ban?
"Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically," Trump said in his three-minute speech Thursday night. "As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies."
Asked after the speech whether the White House approach to the refugee crisis will change because of the military action, the national security adviser replied: "No, that wasn't discussed as any part of the deliberations."
Many Democrats are focusing on the refugee ban as they react to the missile strikes. "President Assad's vicious brutality demands a response. But . . . any strategy that ignores the refugees fleeing this unimaginable terror is a half-step at best," said Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass. Another member of the Bay State delegation added:
"So @POTUS cares enough about the Syrian people to launch 50 Tomahawks but not enough to let the victims of Assad find refuge & freedom here," tweeted Seth Moulton, D-Mass.