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A Non-Signal to Syria

Why the Strike May Not Shape Assad's Behavior

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, April 2017.  SANA / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

On April 4, Syrian government forces launched a chemical weapons attack against the town of Khan Shaykhun, killing dozens of people, including several children. Two days later, the United States struck the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield with cruise missiles, killing at least seven people and destroying a number of Syrian warplanes. Soon after the strike, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a joint statement praising President Donald Trump’s decision to “sen[d] an important message” to the Syrian regime—a sentiment that many other observers have since echoed.

But what message, exactly, did the strikes send? Many of the attack’s proponents have argued that it will show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the United States will punish his government if it uses chemical weapons again, and that this will deter it from choosing to do so. In fact, the strike’s message was ambiguous—and

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