— There will be no further teaming up between Trump and Putin — on principle.
— Russia’s offer to help defuse tensions, probably not.
— What an attack on Assad would mean for chemical weapons.
— The Kremlin’s anger and the military response that might follow.
After Trump said that Syria used chemical weapons, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his deputy John Rood, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, will brief Congress and the American public Wednesday morning on the strike on Syria last night. There was broad bipartisan support in Congress for the strike, especially from Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, but lawmakers had not been briefed by officials in the past, which the Pentagon said was due to an oversight. Trump even tweeted that he would not allow the gassing of innocent civilians to happen again.
The briefing will come hours after a surprise Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian airfield. This strikes in a three-way war: The Pentagon coordinates with allied forces in Syria and Iraq, including American Special Operations; Russia comes to the defense of the Assad regime in Syria; and Turkey’s Erdoğan regime has been looking to add Syrian rebels to its operations in northern Syria.
Whatever you think of the attack, there is a looming question on everyone’s mind: Would there be a retaliation by Russia? The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon had concluded there would not, but that went out the window late last night as missile alerts rippled across the Russian coast. Reports said there was as many as 50 interceptor missiles launched in the area. A reading of the odds by the National Security Agency earlier this year, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, said the odds of the missile attack actually drawing retaliation by Russia were zero.
Though there are U.S. troops in Syria, but the military mission is to defeat ISIS, the U.S. has closely partnered with the Turks to separate the ISIS from any regime threat. Yet the U.S. is bombing ISIS and targets that have Turkey’s preference. The bulk of U.S. military assistance comes in the form of air support, training Turkish ground forces, and proxy forces from the Free Syrian Army. Turkey says it will not prevent the U.S. from targeting ISIS fighters along the border, yet it has limited military options when it comes to actually striking a regime that it blames for murdering civilians with chemical weapons. Turkey’s Erdogan administration and its allies are likely to blame the U.S. for provoking the missile strikes. Both the Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence community have repeatedly said that the military option of direct U.S. intervention is not on the table for the Assad regime, but it’s also more likely to persist than a response from Russia.
Speaking of Russia’s reaction. Alexander Shulgin, the deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, blamed the U.S. for the raid, saying Washington was trying to reverse the current course of the Syrian conflict. “The United States is attempting to make the situation in Syria more unpredictable and is sacrificing human lives to achieve its goals in Syria and elsewhere,” he said. The Pentagon also accused Russia of engaging in “profligate bluster.”
Right now, the focus of U.S. forces is on two objectives: Eliminating the threat of chemical weapons on the ground and separating ISIS from al-Qaida in the region. “That is what we are aiming to do in Syria. We intend to eliminate the ISIL threat as well,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said at a press conference Tuesday, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
The military may also have a new tool with which to fight ISIS: Accelerated Fix Guided Dual-Purpose Air Defense Missiles. Some of the missiles, flown by a fleet of five C-130 cargo aircraft, were transporting an AC-130 Reaper strike aircraft against a position where ISIS was gathering mortars. They launch from the planes in one- or two-hour intervals, shut down the missiles when they sense the threat is over, then re-blast with a second attack in the same area. The devices are technologically similar to the U.S. Army’s Precision Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, but longer-range.