Interview: Why Did Syria Still Have Chemical Weapons?

This op-ed originally appeared in

Late on Thursday night, Donald Trump launched the first military strike of his presidency, hitting a Syrian government air base with 59 missiles. It was the same air base from which Syria had dispatched a chemical-weapons attack against its own people earlier this week. Foreign-policy experts are only now beginning to debate whether the U.S. is at war with Syria; what happens next remains totally unclear. However, one thing is certain: Syria’s chemical weapons were supposed to be gone as of 2014, thanks to a removal plan the U.S. and Russia had brokered with the United Nations. For an explanation, we spoke with Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Arms Control Association, immediately after the attack was announced.

What are your early thoughts and questions about President Trump choosing to launch a missile strike on Syria as a response to Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons? 
One reaction is that it’s absolutely stunning how Donald Trump’s view of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the drawing of red lines has altered in such a short time. A week ago, he and his team signaled that the removal of Bashar al-Assad was not a high priority for the United States. That may have even given Assad a green light to launch this attack. But now, just days later, Trump has said this is unacceptable, and has decided — apparently without a broader, longer-term plan for how this should play out, he has launched this missile strike. It’s not clear from the statements I have read, from the president or the Pentagon, what the purpose of the attack was. Was it simply to deter further chemical-weapons use? Was it to destroy chemical-weapons stockpiles that might still exist? Was it to strike the one particular airfield where we think an earlier chemical-weapons strike was launched? The other thing that’s striking is that in 2013, President Obama sought congressional authorization for the use of military force. Donald Trump has not. He consulted members of Congress as the strike was happening, and it’s not clear whether this is the last cruise-missile strike.

Finally, there have been many atrocities in the Syrian civil war — chemical weapons among the worst. But will President Trump now seek to retaliate militarily to every atrocity? We are now, in some ways, on the hook — he’s on the hook — to respond to the other atrocities that will certainly continue. I mean, Assad is certainly not going to stop killing civilians; he’s not going to stop bombing hospitals; and Russia is not going to stop cooperating. These are questions that I think the administration needs to try to answer in the days ahead. If they don’t have the answers, they need to find them fast.

Do you have any sense of where we go from here? 
We’re in uncharted territory here. This could go in a lot of different directions. What were the results on the ground? Were there any Russian, Syrian, or Hezbollah personnel killed? What does Russia do in response? What does Assad do in response? We’ll have to see. There’s a risk of escalation. 

To read the complete interview, visit